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Literature

Return to Eastwick

John Updike’s sequel captures the country’s slow decline

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John Freeman

"Women are in league with each other,” the critic Camille Paglia once half-warned, “a secret conspiracy of hearts and pheromones.” In his 1984 novel The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike gave this idea a satirical tweak. He conjured a trio of Rhode Island women—Sukie, Lexa and Jane—who become witches after divorcing. Single and suddenly free, they wreaked havoc on a sleepy town.

Twenty-four years later, with feminism’s corrective message more fully absorbed by society, Updike has resurrected this memorable threesome. They are single again, this time as a result of their husbands’ deaths, and they drift toward each other in search of comfort and news. In a heartbreaking opening section, Updike describes Lexa on a package tour in the Canadian Rockies—the high, cold deep of the mountains a grim prelude of what’s to come.

Always a merciless observer of the daily degradations of American chintz, Updike has turned his keen eye masterfully to the stateless archipelago of aging: the false intimacy of traveling en masse, the increasing frequency of doctor visits, the heavy trickle of bad news. Jane and Lexa reunite and travel to Egypt, add Sukie and voyage on to China, where the Great Wall’s crumble speaks to them that all things come to an end.

The Details

The Widows of Eastwick
Three and a half stars
John Updike
Knopf, $25
Beyond the Weekly
The Widows of Eastwick

“We’re pre-electronic,” Sukie says, seeing a phone booth next to the Wall, marveling at how unimpressed her children would be by a phone call. “To us the Earth is still enormous, right?”

Too often The Widows of Eastwick worries its themes along in dialogue like this. Sukie and Jane talk more like guests on The View than everyday women. The novel’s wry, cackling power returns when the women return to Eastwick for a summer holiday, and Updike trains the camera-eye of his prose on the changes the town has seen: the lifting of zoning laws, the too-cheery refurbishments, the creak and groan of its midway. America has no greater prose-poet for the entropic pulse of our towns and small cities.

This is more than window-dressing, too. Coupled with the abrupt downshift in his heroines’ bodies, Updike’s swirling observations of the creeping dishevelment in his (invented) corner of America make The Widows of Eastwick a grim, timely look at the country’s body politic in a time of downturn. The reunited witches’ run-ins with old lovers and enemies give the tale that jolty sexuality so familiar to an Updike novel. But, as almost every sentence in this novel reminds, these are barely aftershocks—less reminders of what once was than hints at the greater, more final jolt to come.

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