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[review] Witches of Eastwick

I know I’m totally behind the times, but I just finished reading John Updike’s “The Witches of Eastwick”. Having never seen the movie (it’s on my to-do list!), I had been enjoying watching a show on ABC called Eastwick, that is sort of like Desperate Housewives with magic. There’s a really great review of the show here. It got canceled, of course, after one season, and I’m not honestly sure if they showed the entire season. There was a break for a few weeks, and I got busy and may not have gotten back to it. But feeling deprived of my weekly witch-fix, I decided to go to the source and picked up the book.

The story takes place in a sleepy town in Rhode Island, in the blossoming era between the 60’s and 70’s. Three women work to find their inner power as they struggle against the small-minded town folk. Being sexually liberated and very in tune with their power as women, Updike manifests them as three types of witches; the Earth mother artist type who can’t can tomatoes fast enough, Alexandra; the young, sexy journalist who seems to be able to get whatever information she wants, Jane; and the musician whose cello playing transports her in rhapsody and moves people, a woman who goes by Sukie. These three women are drawn together by their similar lifestyles of loving other people’s husbands, and have a small coven where they drink, gossip and raise a cone of power.

Along comes a rich man, who buys the big house by the water, Daryll Van Horne, who butts into all of their lives and encourages them to be more. While he is cold, awkward and extremely off-putting, before long he has all of them wishing they were his, which begets this strange polyamorous relationship of group sex, marijuana, spicy food and booze. When Alexandra’s lover dies (well, murders his wife and then hangs himself), leaving his adult children to clean up after his mess, Alexandra invites his kids Jenny and Chris to their sabbat. But the new blood doesn’t mix in as expected, and the three witches find themselves increasingly on the outside of Daryll’s affections. When Jenny and Daryll marry, it all goes to shit as the women focus their malice on a spell that would slowly kill her. I’ll leave the ending out so you can enjoy the book yourself.

In the end, the book is really about making your life what you want it to be. But when our characters figure it out, it doesn’t bring them closer together.

The writing itself was very lyrical and descriptive–something I find to be lacking in much of our modern writing. The author will go into detail about the feeling of nature, making it almost a character,which relates to the other people in the book, and it pulls on these characters in particular:

Easter evening turned out to be a warm spring night with a south wind pulling the moon backwards through wild, blanched clouds. The tide had left silver puddles on the causeway. New green marsh grass was starting up in the spaces between the rocks; Alexandra’s headlights swung shadows among the boulders and across the tree-intertwined entrance gate.

Updike weaves witch mythology together to create something very interesting. He relies on the old medieval witchcraft trials for his rituals and spells, so lots of Latin in the book. His witches are drawn together around a devil-type character which brings the dubachery to a whole new level. He weaves in some more modern commentary on the women’s movement. For example, it seems that in order to become a witch and gain powers, you must be divorced.

As a witch myself, I could understand the closeness these three women feel for each other (I have a small coven of sisters who also meet and raise an informal cone of power). Updike really captures the bond of sisterhood that I believe is unique to women. His women aren’t perfect wives and mothers, but find that their children almost get in the way of their lives. They don’t judge themselves by societies morals and expectations, but do what they want. Yet each one has a place in society; Alexandra’s sculptures of rotund women are bought up quickly by tourists and townfolk alike, Jane’s penetrating eye makes her a smart and quick journalist, and Sukie’s musical ability is tamed by teaching piano lessons and working on Sundays as a church organist around town.

However, there is a pettiness to Updike’s women that bothers me, not that the men are any better drawn. The sisters will turn on each other as fast as they will turn on somebody else, and their grudges run deep and for a long time. The concept of good and evil is blurred, and even characters you like end up doing distasteful things. The book encourages the stereotype of witches that is barely a reflection of what we do today. I wouldn’t have anyone who is concerned about witchcraft read it, because I wouldn’t want them to get the wrong idea. For all the book is fiction, I have to say that I’ve known people in the community to reflect some of these practices.

This is a hard book to put down. The scenes and events flow into each other very organically, and there are very few natural breaks in the narrative. This might be a great summer read for when you are on an airplane and have many hours to devote to your reading. The book, rather like the TV show, left me going “hey! I was watching that!” Luckily Updike returns to these characters in “The Widows of Eastwick”, which came out in 2008 to lukewarm reviews.

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