John Updike revels in the role of the old-fashioned novelist—an Olympian witness to the flickers of behavior that bypass ordinary mortals. A miniaturist, he fashions an amazing dollhouse of a book, complete with tiny paintings, lights that work, shiny-eyed dogs and faces drawn in Dutch-master detail. The cultural bric-a-brac of the U.S. middle class, like shabby religious relics, continues to hold a sad fascination for him. In his 11th novel, The Witches ofEastwick, Updike once again takes on the task of restoring meaning to the mundane surface of daily life.
His story is a mild, mischievous one about three divorced women in a small Rhode Island town during the Vietnam War. Jane plays the cello, Sukie writes for the local paper, and Alexandra sculpts little clay figures. But the women have other talents. With a combination of humility and wickedness Updike has turned his heroines into witches—women in touch with their own power. From time to time they apply themselves to needy men, like poultices. As for their former husbands, Updike says the women have transformed them into a jar of dust, a bundle of herbs and a plastic placemat. Whether that is fact or figure of speech, the author refuses to say. Every Thursday the women get together and “in the right mood and into their third drinks, they could erect a cone of power above
them like a tent to the zenith.”
At first, the women’s sorcery is harmless: when one of them loses at tennis, she turns the ball into a toad. Then the arrival of a new man in town disturbs their cozy coven. Darryl Van Horne is an obnoxious New York inventor who buys the local mansion and turns the basement into a laboratory. A rather repellent man, Van Horne is clearly the devil from Manhattan, and his cleverness lies in his recognition of the women’s strengths. Soon their Thursdays have turned into weekly orgies in Van Horne’s teak hot tub.
Sexual jealousies lead to more dangerous spells. Sukie’s lover kills his wife violently. The weather turns suddenly nasty. When the coven takes on a new young protégée who tactlessly ends up marrying Van Horne, she develops cancer and dies. Witchcraft is a metaphor for what happens when the forces of sympathy and spite rebound within the narrow limits of a town falling under the spell of the 1960s. There seems to be a moral: adultery upsets the social ecology and unleashes disturbing natural forces. What begins as a bit of mischief can end up with all hell breaking loose.
But Updike’s witches are not for burning. They are strong women in the wrong age. He is even harder on the men, who are either shrivelled up or full of rage. Despite that rather depressing aerial view of the sexes, the novel is mostly comic, a playful fable of the currents at work in a town in which “there are no secrets, only areas of avoidance.” —MARNI JACKSON
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