The Widows of Eastwick
By John Updike
Knopf / 320 pages / $24.95
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 Horne. In their prime, the three divorcees teased lovers, taunted rivals, explored their sexual and mystical powers and lounged around in Horne'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 for turning what might seem like 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.
While Widows is a sequel to Updike's popular 1984 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 her separate way - Alexandra to the desert in New Mexico, Jane to Massachusetts and Sukie to Connecticut. Widows begins with Alexandra, the oldest and earthiest of the witches, who has recently lost her cowboy-potter husband. Updike spends the first third of the book leisurely describing her life as an aging widow. She joins other senior citizens on a bus tour to Canada, dabbles in her deceased husband's pottery studio and copes with the nightmares that are the retribution for the evils she committed in Eastwick.
Alexandra's contact with her former collaborators in the dark arts has been reduced to the yearly Christmas card. But when December comes, she gets word from Jane that she, too, has recently lost her husband. Seeking solace in each other, the two travel together to Egypt, and explore ancient tombs and pyramids - marveling at the lengths to which man will go to overcome death. But with just the two of them, the old spark and magic is missing. Disappointed, they return home. And then Sukie, the "baby" of the trio, writes to say that her husband has suddenly dropped dead on the squash court.
Now the three unite for a trip to China, where they dabble in enough black magic to give them hope that they have not lost their power after all. Freed from husbands and family obligations, they are tempted to try to reconvene the coven and resurrect their supernatural powers. And what better place to fully recover their old magic than Eastwick, the scene of their former power and their past crimes?
Alexandra at first is reluctant to return, feeling guilty over the role the women played in the death of Jenny Gabriel, their rival for Van Horne's affections. But Jane is insistent: "There was no crime," she says. "There was a healthy exploration of our female potential."
So the three head back to Eastwick to spend the summer. As fate would have it, they end up renting a few rooms in Van Horne's mansion, which has been carved up into apartments. There are other changes around town as well. The old hardware store has given way to a Home Depot. Twinkling lights decorate the trees at the dock all year-round. Boutiques and gift shops proliferate as the town actively courts a budding tourist industry. The people also have changed. Former lovers have grown old; some have died. Children have grown up. Grandchildren have been born. Still, there are people left in town who remember the evil trio. And some of them are set on revenge.
The witches spend their days trying to reconnect to the town and their former lives. They shop, stroll the streets, go to the beach. Alexandra tries to mend relations with her estranged daughter and get to know her grandchildren who live in the town. Sukie reconnects with an old lover, now aged and deformed, but finds herself more drawn to the new minister at the Unitarian Church. Jane worries constantly about her health, especially the inexplicable sensations of electricity passing through her body. "Energy," Jane says. "I can't remember what it was like to have any."
Even their sexual powers have waned. "Do you miss sex?" Alexandra asks Sukie. "I find I don't."
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.
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 has 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 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. Though they are not immortal, they are not without hope.
News that the damnable trio were back in town percolated from ear to ear like rainwater trickling through the tunnels of an ant colony.