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Review: The Widows of Eastwick

On the book page of Sunday's Baltimore Sun, you'll find Liz Atwood's review The Widows of Eastwick By John Updike (Knopf/320 pages/$24.95). Here's an excerpt from the review:

It's been 30 years since the three witches haunted the sleepy town of Eastwick, R.I., under the tutelage of the devil incarnate, Darryl Van Horn. In their prime, the three divorcees teased lovers, taunted rivals, explored their sexual and mystical powers and lounged around in Horn's hot tub. But even witches grow old. Do they still have what it takes to make magic?"

John Updike, one of America's greatest living novelists, reprises the memorable characters from the Witches of Eastwick — Alexandra, Jane and Sukie — in this story about the need to cling to life in the face of deterioration and death. Updike has a knack of turning what might seem sophomoric tales into grander explorations of life's greater truths, and he does so again here as the aging witches confront the loss of their powers.

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While Widows is a sequel to Updike's 1984 popular novel, readers need not have read the first to appreciate what has become of the once lusty and powerful trio. Each conjured up husbands and went their separate ways — Alexandra to the desert in New Mexico, Jane to Massachusetts and Sukie to Connecticut. Widows begins with Alexandra, the oldest and most earthy of the witches, who has recently lost her cowboy-potterer husband. ...

Updike's witches are not the sort found in MacBeth or The Blair Witch Project. The power of these witches is contained within aging and deteriorating bodies. Sabbats are held in the early evening rather than midnight so they can get to bed at a respectable hour. They don't fly on brooms. Alexandra's trips are limited because she must share a car with the others.

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The frailty and futility of their efforts to reconvene the coven become clear when they try to resurrect their supernatural powers in a healing ceremony the night Jane had a tell-all X-ray. This time, they attempt to apply their powers for good: "Years ago, we grabbed what we wanted from the town and then left. Now we've returned to give something back," Alexandra says.

Updike's description of how she prepares shows for the night is one of the high points of the book. With his artist's eye he describes how Alexandra tries to conjure magic from the most mundane items, drawing a sacred circle with granules of Cascade, using a broom shaft as the door to the netherworld, lighting the scene with scented candles from the grocery store. The other two witches take such a light-hearted approach to the whole proceeding that the evening resembles a sorority initiation more than the healing ceremony it was supposed to be.

In the end, the ceremony fails to summon all of the magic the witches had hoped for. The three whom the town hated and feared, turn out to be old women who are vulnerable to age, illness and death. And yet while Updike makes the witches suffer, he does not strip them of all their power. While they not immortal, they are not without hope.

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