From the Publisher
“Ingenious . . . This isn’t writing. It is magic.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Dazzling Updikean prose . . . Here’s a bet his work will keep fresh for generations, inciting laughter, wonder and sensuous shivers.”—Los Angeles Times
“An amusing romp . . . made unexpectedly moving by the author’s profundity and his renowned dexterity with language . . . [Updike is a] master of making us want to guffaw and weep in the same sentence.”—The Houston Chronicle
Updike's predictably ingenious sequel, set 30-plus years later. The mood and tone are very differentrelaxed and contemplative…The genius inheres in the precise observation, in the equally precise language, but above all in the illusion that the image has been received and processed in real time, when in truth Updike has slowed events to a dreamlike pace and given them a dream's hyperreality, so that the distinction between the actual and the imagined feels erased.
The New York Times Book Review
…more emotionally credible work than its predecessor. Mr. Updike is less interested here in scoring didactic points against feminism than he is in exploring the wages of time and age shared by men and women alike, and there is an elegiac tone to the novel not dissimilar to that in the last Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest (1990). The mood here reflects his characters' realization that the past now weighs more than the future in the scale of their lives, and that the noisy imperatives of sex, which once got them in to so much trouble, have given way to whispered worries about bodily ailments and medical woes…His leading ladies are more compelling not as supernatural sorceresses but as ordinary women, haunted by the sins of their youth, frightened of the looming prospect of the grave and trying their best to get by, day by day by day.
The New York Times
Three decades after the original release of Updike's The Witches of Eastwick comes this follow-up featuring the same depressed, divorced and devilish ladies of the original. This time around the women are, naturally, widows who travel the world searching for happiness and ultimately find themselves back in Eastwick. Kate Reading gives a powerful and entertaining performance, capturing the essence of each character with equally driven intensity and passion. The flawless Reading is especially captivating in her role as witch Sukie. Though Updike's writing may not possess the same power that it had in the original, Reading keeps listeners focused on the present and yearning for more in the future. A Knopf hardcover (Reviews, July 28). (Nov.)Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Twenty-four years after they flew into our lives, those audacious and lovable Witches of Eastwick are back. Now widowed and living in various parts of the country, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie get together for a return trip to the Rhode Island village that they haunted so many years ago and that was the scene of one of their most murderous acts. Once they arrive, they find the welcome mat rolled up and the village's citizens angry, bewildered, anxious, and vengeful. As they meet up with old lovers, children, and friends, the three soon find themselves tangled in a mysterious and magical web of fateful events that ruins their trip and alters their lives forever. Like most of his recent novels-with the exception of Terrorist-this latest is an unsatisfying rumination on the loss of sexual vitality and death. As elegant a writer as he is, Updike has not quite been able to create fully drawn women characters who have vital lives and personalities of their own. Still, fans of The Witches of Eastwick who have always wondered what happened to the trio will want to read this novel, and most libraries will want to own any Updike novel.
Henry L. Carrigan Jr.
Once again summoning characters from his previous books, Updike catches up with the fetching trio of amateur sorceresses introduced in The Witches of Eastwick (1984). Though they share the state of widowhood, geographical distance and the whims of fortune have long since separated the women. There's Junoesque Alexandra ("Lexa," the eldest, having reached 70-something), surviving in Taos, N.M., on her late husband's modest estate; tightly wound Jane, who married money and now has oodles of it; and resourceful Sukie, who has channeled her pert sexuality into a string of bestselling romance novels. Deflecting mortality's momentum by compulsive traveling (Canada, China, Egypt-each "done" memorably, thanks to Updike's unerring grasp of revelatory indigenous detail), the reunited trio undertake a summer in Rhode Island, where their "coven" was formed, and dangerous mischief was performed. Old acquaintances, victims and enemies greet and threaten them, and Lexa's nagging fears of bodily breakdown and looming death create an inhibiting atmosphere of entrapment. Their former collaborator in sexual malfeasance, Darryl Van Horne (memorably enacted on film by a leering Jack Nicholson), has left potent traces of his influence. This is a most curious novel. Updike haters will quickly point out its lax pacing, encyclopedic sufficiency of laboriously assimilated information and tedious fixation on lubricious sexual detail. Admirers will note its seamless blending of dexterously plotted narrative with penetrating characterizations that evoke with nearly Tolstoyan poignancy the weary, resigned clairvoyance of old age (e.g., Lexa's intuition that "the cells of my body are getting impatient with me. They'rebored with housing my spirit"). A work of old age that takes its time, gently drawing us into its knowing orbit. We inhabit this story as we do the later stages of our own lives. Some will not like the book, but it is a vital part of the Updike experience. First printing of 200,000. Book-of-the-Month Club main selection
It is always risky for a writer or filmmaker to produce a sequel to a favorite work: the second installment so seldom measures up to the first, and all too often taints its predecessor with its comparative mediocrity. But John Updike is not one to let the odds bother him -- and why should he? He is blessed with seemingly infinite inventive resources and can afford to be daring and profligate with his ideas; sometimes his wild imaginative leaps succeed and sometimes they don't, but failure has never made him any more cautious the next time around.
One of the most eccentric ideas he ever came up with was the premise for The Witches of Eastwick (1985): three women develop magical powers upon divorcing their husbands and operate as a coven in the seaside town of Eastwick, Rhode Island. What makes the book so funny and clever is that aside from their witching prowess there is nothing very remarkable about Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie: they are just highly sexed women on the cusp of middle age, working their way through all the available (and indeed unavailable) local male talent. ("Being a divorcée in a small town is a little like playing Monopoly," Alexandra reflects; "eventually you land on all the properties.") True to the humorless political literalism of the last couple of decades, quite a few readers considered The Witches of Eastwick to be a misogynist work, but when you look at it unblinkered by ideology, it is clear that the novel constitutes a passionately enthusiastic paean to the Circean sexual powers of ripe femininity, and the pitiless greed with which it demands to be satisfied.
Now, with The Widows of Eastwick, Updike has brought his witches into the new century. When they left Rhode Island back in the 1970s, each woman had conjured up an ideal husband: Jane, an antique-collecting Boston Brahmin; Alexandra, a cowboy/potter in Taos; Sukie, a slick money man. Now, all widowed and approaching 70, they decide to return to Eastwick for a summer, partly out of lingering guilt over the evil deeds they committed there so long ago and partly, we suspect, in an attempt to regain a bit of the power -- physical, sexual, magical -- they enjoyed in their prime. "There's something there, there always was," Jane insists. "The spirit of Anne Hutchinson, it could be. It was liberating, empowering. We came into our own. We should never have found husbands and left."
Marriage, they consider, diminished their powers; now they try to regain them, just at that fatal moment when nature has become their enemy instead of their ally. "I used to think I loved [nature]," Alexandra says, "but now that it's chewing me to death, I realize I hate it and fear it." And coming back together as a trio, they do retaste a little of the heady past, at least momentarily.
But they are old, and the times are radically different. The decade of the 1970s, post-Pill, pre-AIDS, was the heyday of supercharged extramarital sex, and Updike was its prophet. Thirty-five years on, he and his characters wonder why it is all so different now. Jane thinks that perhaps the repression that still hung on into the '70s had something to do with the era's feeling of pent-up energy, and she compares Then and Now with some asperity:
And the younger people, the age we were when we were here -- ssso tiresome, just from the look of them, toned-up young mothers driving their overweight boys in overweight SUVs to hockey practice twenty miles away, the young fathers castrated namby-pambies helping itty-bitty wifey with the housekeeping, spending all Saturday fussing around the lovely home. It's the Fifties all over again, without the Russians as an excuse. You wonder how they managed to fuck enough to make their precious children. They probably didn't -- it's all in vitro now, and every birth is cesarean, so the doctors won't get sued. People go around mourning the death of God; it's the death of sin that bothers me. Without sin, people aren't people any more, they're just sheep.
As this citation shows, the three witches are not afraid of sin. As it also shows, they have little time for the younger generation, including their own children. All three were neglectful mothers, even by the loose standards of their day; now they are peevishly resented by their adult offspring, whom they look on, in turn, with contempt -- especially the daughters, who are disappointingly un-witchlike. Updike dealt with the three women's inadequate mothering off-handedly in the first novel -- after all, that was just the way his generation behaved -- but The Widows of Eastwick is, in part, an apology to the wronged children. Alexandra coexists calmly enough with her son ("He actually was a Republican, like his father -- but it seemed much worse in a son than in a husband. You expected it in a husband") but finds herself compelled to come to some sort of emotional terms with her daughter Marcie, now an unattractive 50-year-old Eastwick housewife who still seems to be searching for something she didn't get from her mother -- what? Attention, as someone suggests? Rules to live by?
Updike's powers, like those of his witches, unfortunately seem to have dimmed in this return to his old stomping ground. The Widows of Eastwick is an intelligent and rewarding book, like almost everything he produces, but it retains only mild vestiges of the truly magical sheen of the first volume, which especially in its virtuosic first 50 pages or so saw the author at the very top of his game, a far greater magus than the witches' nemesis, Darryl Van Horne. Updike can still weave spells with words and images, but he does so infrequently in The Widows of Eastwick, which assumes a markedly crepuscular tone as the witches approach "the engulfing indifference that readies us for death." Jane, Alexandra, and Sukie are fading out, and no new witches have appeared in Eastwick to take their place. Perhaps this is because modern women don't need witchcraft: Eastwick's family doctor and Unitarian minister are now women, after all, and everywhere it seems that "women were at last inheriting the world, leaving men to sink ever deeper in their fantasies of violence and domination." As I reader I don't really believe this -- and neither, I imagine, does Updike, who throughout his long career has done as much to celebrate maleness and the male point of view as any writer in American history. --Brooke Allen
Brooke Allen is the author of Twentieth-Century Attitudes; Artistic License; and Moral Minority. She is a contributor to The New York Times Book Review, The New Criterion, The New Leader, The Hudson Review, and The Nation, among others. She was named a finalist for the 2007 Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle.
Read an Excerpt
i. The Coven Reconstituted
Those of us acquainted with their sordid and scandalous story were not surprised to hear, by way of rumors from the various localities where the sorceresses had settled after fleeing our venerable town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, that the husbands whom the three Godforsaken women had by their dark arts concocted for themselves did not prove durable. Wicked methods make weak products. Satan counterfeits Creation, yes, but with inferior goods.
Alexandra, the oldest in age, the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity, was the first to become a widow. Her instinct, as with so many a wife suddenly liberated into solitude, was to travel—as if the world at large, by way of flimsy boarding cards and tedious airport delays and the faint but undeniable risk of flight in a time of rising fuel costs, airline bankruptcy, suicidal terrorists, and accumulating metal fatigue, could be compelled to yield the fruitful aggravation of having a mate. Jim Farlander, the husband she had conjured for herself from a hollowed pumpkin, a cowboy hat, and a pinch of Western soil scraped from inside the back fender of a pickup truck with Colorado plates that she had seen parked, looking eerily out of place, on Oak Street in the early 1970s, had, as their marriage settled and hardened, proved difficult to budge from his ceramics studio and little-frequented pottery shop on a side street in Taos, New Mexico.
Jim’s idea of a trip had been the hour’s drive south to Santa Fe; his idea of a holiday was spending a day in one of the Indian reservations—Navajo, Zuni, Apache, Acoma, Isleta Pueblo—spying out what the Native American potters were offering in the reservation souvenir shops, and hoping to pick up cheap in some dusty Indian Bureau commissary an authentic old black-and-white geometric Pueblo jar or a red-on-buff Hohokam storage jar, with its spiral-and-maze pattern, which he could peddle for a small fortune to a newly endowed museum in one of the burgeoning resort cities of the Southwest. Jim liked where he was, and Alexandra liked that in him, since she as his wife was part of where he was. She liked his lean build (a flat stomach to the day he died, and never performed a sit-up in his life) and the saddle smell of his sweat and the scent of clay that clung, like a sepia aura, to his strong and knowing hands. They had met, on the natural plane, when she, for some time divorced, had taken a course at the Rhode Island School of Design, where he had been enlisted as a fill-in instructor. The four stepchildren—Marcy, Ben, Linda, Eric—that she saddled him with couldn’t have asked for a calmer, more soothingly taciturn father-substitute. He was easier for her children—half out of the nest in any case, Marcy being all of eighteen—to relate to than their own father, Oswald Spofford, a small manufacturer of kitchen fixtures from Norwich, Connecticut. Poor Ozzie had become so earnestly involved in Little League baseball and company bowling that no one, not even his children, could take him seriously.
People had taken Jim Farlander seriously, women and children especially, giving him back his own coiled silence. His level gray eyes had the glint of a gun from within the shade of his wide-brimmed hat, its crown darkened where his thumb and fingers pinched it. When he was at the pottery wheel he tied a faded blue bandana around his head to keep his long hair—gray but still streaked with its original sun-bleached auburn and gathered behind into an eight-inch ponytail—out of the clay, wet and spinning on the foot-powered wheel. A fall in his teens from a horse had left him with a limp, and the wheel, which he refused to electrify, limped with him, while out of the spinning his masculine hands shaped blobs upward into graceful vessels with slender waists and swelling bottoms.
It was in bed she first felt his death coming. His erections began to wilt just as she might have come if he had held on; instead, in his body upon hers, there was a palpable loosening in the knit of his sinews. There had been a challenging nicety in the taut way Jim dressed himself—pointy vanilla-colored boots, butt-hugging jeans with rivet-bordered pockets, and crisp checked shirts double-buttoned at the cuff. Once a dandy of his type, he began to wear the same shirt two and even three days in a row. His jaw showed shadows of white whisker underneath, from careless shaving or troubled eyesight. When the ominous blood counts began to arrive from the hospital, and the shadows in the X-rays were visible to even her untrained eyes, he greeted the news with stoic lassitude; Alexandra had to fight to get him out of his crusty work clothes into something decent. They had joined the legion of elderly couples who fill hospital waiting rooms, as quiet with nervousness as parents and children before a recital. She felt the other couples idly pawing at them with their eyes, trying to guess which of the two was the sick one, the doomed one; she didn’t want it to be obvious. She wanted to present Jim as a mother presents a child going to school for the first time, as a credit to her. They had lived, these thirty-plus years since she had lived in Eastwick, by their own rules, up in Taos; there the free spirits of the Lawrences and Mabel Dodge Luhan still cast a sheltering cachet over the remnant tribe of artistic wannabes, a hard-drinking, New Age–superstitious, artsy-craftsy crowd who aimed their artifacts, in their shop-window displays, more and more plaintively at scrimping, low-brow tourists rather than the well-heeled local collectors of Southwestern art. Alexandra for a time had revived her manufacture of little ceramic “bubbies”—faceless, footless little female figures, pleasant to hold in the hand and roughly painted in clothes worn as close to the skin as tattoos—but Jim, jealous and dictatorial in his art as true artists are, had been less than gracious about sharing his kiln. In any case, the miniature women, their vulval cleft boldly dented into the clay with a toothpick or nail file held sideways, belonged to an uncomfortable prior period of her life, when she had practiced, with two other Rhode Island divorcees, a half-baked suburban variety of witchcraft.
Jim’s illness drove her and Jim down from safe, arty Taos into the wider society, the valleys of the ailing, a vast herd moving like stampeded bison toward the killing cliff. The socialization forced upon her—interviews with doctors, most of them unsettlingly young; encounters with nurses, demanding merciful attentions the hospitalized patient was too manly and depressed to ask for himself; commisera- tion with others in her condition, soon-to-be widows and widowers she would have shunned on the street but now, in these antiseptic hallways, embraced with shared tears—prepared her for travel in the company of strangers.
She could not believe it—how totally Jim was gone, his morning absence as vivid as a rooster’s wake-up crow, his evening non-appearance a refusal bound, she felt, to be cancelled, any moment, by the scuffling sound of his boots limping across the entry hall or the squeak, two rooms away, of his potter’s wheel. Three months after his death, she signed up for a ten-day tour of the Canadian Rockies. Her old, married, cosseted self, a bohemian snob proud of her careless, mannish clothes and high-desert privacy, would have sneered at the feigned camaraderie of an organized group tour. She foresaw the daily duty to rise and gorge on cafeteria-style hotel breakfasts and submit to more marvels, and the resisted but irresistible naps in the swaying bus in clammy proximity to an alien body, usually that of another plucky widow, overweight and remorselessly talkative. Then there would be the sleepless hours, amid worrisome small noises and mysterious tiny red lights, in a king-size bed built for a couple. Hotel pillows were always too stuffed, too full, and lifted her head too high, so she woke, groggily dumfounded to have slept at all, with a stiff neck. The pillow next to hers would be undented. It would dawn on her that she would never be one of a couple again.
But, born in Colorado, she thought it an amusing idea to follow the Rockies north into another country, where a dramatic landscape did not flatter the rapacious vanity of the United States. And Canada, she discovered, did have its good points: airports not bribed to install television sets pouring forth an inescapable babble, and voices whose familiar North American accent was braced by a few leftover Scots vowels, and a gray imperial gravity of public architecture. This national identity had been created by the sensible spirit of business enterprise, linking the provinces like great beads on an iron railroad line, rather than by any evangelical preachment of a Manifest Destiny—manifest only to its Anglo perpetrators—that had hurled the agglutinated United States westwards and then outwards, across all the oceans, where its boy soldiers lost limbs and died. The daily death-tolls from Iraq were worth escaping.
On the other hand, in Canada hotel restaurants still seemed to think Frank Sinatra and Nat “King” Cole the latest thing in background music, and the giant cruise ships docked in Vancouver were headed off to dreary cold Alaska. Canada, its tundra and icefields and miles of forest pressing its population down tight against the forty-ninth parallel, had in self-defense embraced Green-ness, trying to make a pet of it, mining for tourist dollars the nostalgia and righteousness inherent in its cause. Bring Back Nature—who could object to that? But for Alexandra, totem poles and emblematic moose had a basic boringness. She felt, up here, trapped in an attic of stuffed animals. Nature had been her ally in witchcraft, but still she distrusted it, as a conscienceless killer, spendthrift and blind.
After a day in Vancouver, and another in determinedly quaint Victoria, the tour—forty travellers, none of them young and eight of them Australian—boarded a sleeper train and were dragged northwards through the dark. They woke amid mountains dazzling with the yellow of turning aspens. The tour had reserved a viewing car for their party, and Alexandra, hesitantly entering, after a heavy breakfast fetched by lurching waiters in the dining car, was greeted with hesitant smiles from the already seated couples. She took one of the few seats left and was conscious of the vacancy at her side, as if of a monstrous wen throwing her face off balance.
But, then, she could never have talked Jim into coming on such an adventure. He hated foreign countries, even the Virgin Islands, where, a few times early in their marriage, she had persuaded him to take her, as a break from the long Taos winter and the ski-season traffic jams along Route 522. They had arrived in St. Thomas, as it turned out, in the late afternoon, and were caught, in their rented Volkswagen Beetle, in the evening rush hour, Jim trying to drive for the first time in his life on the wrong side of the road. More unfortunately still, they were surrounded by black drivers who took a racist pleasure in tailgating them and in rebuking every sign of automotive uncertainty with prolonged, indignant honking. Though eventually they found the resort, at the end of a poorly marked road, Jim got sunburned the first day, having scorned her repeated offer of sunscreen, and then got deadly sick on some conch salad. Whenever, ever after, he felt bested in an exchange of accusations, he would remind her, in detail, of that week that almosttwenty-five years before he really diedkilled him.
Now, in Canada, there was not a road or car in sight, just the tracks and tunnels ahead as the train bored upward through mountains splashed with quaking golden leaves. "There's Mount Robson!" a woman behind Alexandra excitedly told her husband.
An Australian across the aisle, in an attempt at friendliness, said to Alexandra, "Mount Robson ahead," as if she were deaf as well as alone.
From behind this speaker, another voicenot Australian, less peppy, with a tinge of the American Southern tingeexplained to her, everybody around her suddenly solicitous, as if of a defective in their midst, "The tallest peak in the Canadian Rockies."
"Really? Already?" Alexandra asked, knowing she sounded stupid and covering herself with "I mean, shouldn't they have saved it for later in the tour?"
Nobody laughed, perhaps not hearing, or understanding, her little joke. The train was taking a long curve, and the gleaming mountain-tip sank from view behind the aspens; the peak had been oddly regular, like a pyramid in a set of child's blocks, but white. "How high is it?" she asked aloud, determined to combat her sense of non-existence.
Again, she had struck a silencing note. "Nearly four thousand meters," an Australian voice volunteered.
She had trouble translating out of the metric system, and, borrowing a bit of her late husband's xenophobia, refused to try. The slightly Southern voice understood, and explained, "Nearly thirteen thousand feet, ma'am."
"My goodness!" Alexandra said, beginning to enjoy her own inanity. She turned her head to look at her informant. He was lanky, like Jim, and lean-faced, with deep creases and a mustache just long enough to droop. His costume, too faded tight blue jeans and a long-sleeved red-checked shirt reminded her of Jim. "Thank you," she said, with more warmth than she had strictly intended. Perhaps this man with his air of dignified sorrow was a widower. Or was waiting for some slow-moving wife to join him here in the viewing car.
"Mount Robson isn't on the tour," the wife behind Alexandra was saying in her ear, in a penetrating, slightly vexed voice. "It's in a separate national park from Jasper."
"I really haven't done my homework," Alexandra apologized, backwards, experiencing a flash of hatredthe old impatient, witchy, bug-zapping kind of hate she thought she had long outgrown. Why should this woman, common and shrewish from the sound of her voice, have a live husband, when she, Alexandra, did not, sitting here exposed on all sides to these well-meant interventions from strangers?
"That's my style, too," a male Australian reassured her.
"Learn as you go. It's my wife reads the books ahead."
"And sees to the tickets and passports, you lazy sod," the wife said, in the humorous tone of a practiced complaint.
The train, smoother-running than American trains, on Canadian National Railway tracks welded and upheld by the government, continued to nose skyward. Mount Robson again appeared above the trees, its whiteness marked now by black striationsby snow-striped patches, faceted as if the peak had been carved to a point like a flint weapon. The hard cobalt of a picture-postcard sky pressed on these concave contours until the peak disappeared again behind the waves of yellow leaves. "It says here," the Australian wife loudly announced, holding a guidebook, "it was first climbed in 1913, by an Austrian bloke named Kain. K-A-I-N. It says the Canadian mountain men didn't like it when foreigners were the first to climb their mountains to the top. Got their ruddy noses out of joint."
Alexandra sighed and closed her lids, excusing herself from hearing any more. She wanted to relieve them all of having to pay her any further attention. Being a big woman, tall and somewhat broad, her full head of chestnut-brown hair still only half white, had given her a presence when she was younger but now that she was old and mateless made her conspicuous, an embarrassment to herself. Kain, Cain, she thought. The first man to do a truly wicked deed, worse even than eating the apple of knowledge. Slew his brother, Abel. Thirty years ago Alexandra had slain a sister witch: she and Sukie Rougemont and Jane Smart had killed little Jenny Gabriel, though the death certificate blamed metastasized malignancy of the ovaries. The curse of it was always there, inside Alexandra, even when she didn't close her eyes, a sour gnawing. As negligible as a worm in the earth during the daylight hours, at night in her dreams the curse grew large and threatened to eat her alive. Again and again her dreams returned her to that hectic period, when Darryl Van Horne had taken as wife not one of the three of them but a younger woman, fair and ivory-skinned, with innocent, ice-blue eyestoo damned innocent, the older witches had felt. Had Jenny been less innocent, had she been as corrupt as they were, they would have accepted her besting them as part of a game among equals, marrying a man who after all hadn't cared for women, it turned out, and was not even rich, as they had been led to believe. They had imagined him, conjured him out of their own needs.