The aura has vanished from Updike’s witches
By Henry Jackson
Even the most wicked witches age. And, as it turns out, a sorceress’ decline is by turns as painful, lonely and even common as that of any unmagical being.
The aura has vanished from the three witches of Eastwick that John Updike crafted in a wondrous, taboo-filled novel of the same name 24 years ago. In its sequel, "The Widows of Eastwick," Alexandra, Jane and Sukie are still here but, like the author, they are fading — and sometimes gracelessly.
All three are widows now. Having long ago fled the bedlam they left behind during the ill-fated pursuit of Darryl Van Horne in seaside Eastwick, R.I., the once rollicking coven slowly reconvenes, bonding over their mutual losses but mostly reliving past debauchery.
Since they left Eastwick, contact among the three has faded. Alexandra retreated to the southwest, living remotely with a sculptor husband. Jane moved with her own beau to Connecticut, remaining sharp and cynical. Sukie, once Eastwick’s gossip columnist, married a wealthy man and became a second-rate romance novelist.
They take steps to dull their pain, such as they feel it. Alexandra, the most emotive and mournful of the trio, travels to Canada alone, then to Cairo with Jane, who has maintained more of her wicked edge and is less apologetic about the past. When Sukie’s husband dies, she joins the ladies in their travels, falling somewhere between on the emotional scale.
If it sounds melancholy, it is. All the reunions feel forced: The witches with each other and then later, inevitably, with Eastwick; Updike with the protagonists and their sexual exploits; the reader with the whole bawdy ensemble.
What’s odd is that Updike seems to know this. It seems even to be the point. This is supposed to be sad, regretful. His typically descriptive prose is forlorn throughout.
It’s a tone he sets early, as when he describes Alexandra’s discovery of her husband’s cancer:
"They had joined the legion of elderly couples who fill hospital waiting rooms, as quiet with nervousness as parents and children before a recital. She felt the other couples idly pawing at them with their eyes, trying to guess which of the two was the sick one, the doomed one; she didn’t want it to be so obvious."
The plot of "Widows" moves slowly, like an aged thing. Even this feels fairly deliberate. Decline is never as rapid as we’d hope, Updike seems to intone. We have too much time to look back, and that can punish. Even the witches seem to get it:
"How lovely, being remembered," Sukie says to Alexandra at one point. Alexandra’s reply says it all: "It can be, or not."
Updike, of course, need not worry about being remembered. He will be recalled fondly — though probably not for this novel. One of the most prolific and gifted writers of his generation, he has nothing left to prove.
There are moments of brilliance, but he, like the witches, is ebbing.
Toward novel’s end, Alexandra speaks to the daughter of a former lover, Joe. It’s an apt coda — whether intentional or not. (With Updike, one always suspects intent.)
"’How has it been for you,’ she asked. ’Being in Eastwick for this summer?’
"’It was ... useful,’ Alexandra decided. ’It confirmed my suspicion that I belong elsewhere. There was less here than I remembered."’
"The Widows of Eastwick," by John Updike. Alfred A Knopf. 308 pages.