The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Puritanism had landed smack on that rock and after regaining its strength at the expense of the soft-hearted Indians had thrown its steeples and stone walls all across Connecticut, leaving Rhode Island to the Quakers and Jews and antinomians and women.

The Witches of Eastwick, originally published in 1984, is the story of three divorcées stirring up a coastal Rhode Island town in the Vietnam era. Liberated from their husbands, they have become witches, in touch with a feminine power murkily bound to nature. Alexandra, the oldest of the three at 38, is the mother figure of the coven. Jane, a cellist, is sharp and angry; Sukie, a gossip columnist, fiery and youthful. All are mothers and all neglect their children—it is striking how long it takes the children to appear at all in the novel, and when they do it is only to annoy the women and ruin their fun on their own. They seem to like fecundity, maternity, and babies, but children are only a weight to tie them down, a responsibility they don’t want, and possibly a reminder of the husbands they are thrilled to be without. Much more important to have their regular Thursday girls’ night together than to do real grocery shopping and cook a family dinner.

The book opens with Jane breaking the news to Alexandra: there’s a new man in town. This really is news, as the witches have already seduced and had affairs with nearly all the men in Eastwick (mostly married). The new arrival, Darryl Van Horne, is strange and abrasive, initially turning Alexandra off. But he seems determined to befriend all three women, and wants them all to spend time in his rehabbed island mansion, with games of mixed doubles soon turning to marijuana-fueled orgies in a super-luxurious, enormous teak bathtub. Each woman seems to want Darryl for herself, but there seems to be a special affinity between him and Alexandra. For his part, Darryl is somewhat aloof and mysterious. Monogrammed items fill his house but none seem to carry his own initials; his skin—and bodily fluids—are cold to the touch; for some reason he hasn’t paid the bills of the plumber who refitted the mansion; and the chemical engineering project he’s working on, a revolutionary energy technology, doesn’t seem to be going anywhere. But the witches see him as a knight in shining armor and a refuge from their boring lives in sleepy Eastwick.

Their weekly coven meetings turn into weekly bath and massage sessions that the three women seem to hunger for deeply. When something happens to disturb all that, the witches get even in the worst way, bringing undercurrents of resentment to the surface and tearing themselves apart while helping to unite the town against them.

Updike does a phenomenal job throughout of writing women. Satisfaction with an “earth mother” feeling along with self-loathing because of weight, freckles, wrinkles…frankness about sexuality…the compulsion to seduce a man through pity and the feeling that you can heal him with your softness…the pride in independence that keeps you a friendly mistress rather than a nagging wife—all are described wonderfully, for example:

…little is more precious in an affair for a man than being welcomed into a house he has done nothing to support, or more momentous for the woman than this welcoming, this considered largesse, her house his, his on the strength of his cock alone, his cock and company, the smell and amusement and weight of him—no buying you with mortgage payments, no blackmailing you with shared children, but welcomed simply, into the walls of yourself, an admission dignified by freedom and equality.

He’s equally adept at writing the jealousy, resentment, and bitterness that have come to the women by the end of the novel. Conversations become strained, thoughts wander, powers retreat, and maybe Eastwick is over for the witches. Upon leaving,

“You must imagine your life,” Alexandra confided to the younger woman. “And then it happens.”

Her wisdom grounds the book in many ways, and the narration is often very close on Alexandra, her musings about what a bad mother she is, how old she is getting, what her marriage was like, and how much she misses the West. We mostly get Alexandra’s view of the other women and the townsfolk, but the third-person narration is actually first-person, and we get a couple glimpses into what the town thinks of the coven. James Wood (disparagingly) described Updike’s style as “pointillist;” it is an apt term. Extreme detail comes together to create a coherent larger picture, and while I did read some negative Amazon reviews characterizing the novel as “boring” because of that I didn’t find it so at all, and I don’t think I have a problem with it on principle the way Wood does. I was intrigued by these women, really living their lives for themselves, very real—and somewhat repellent. The end felt very appropriate, and left lingering questions all at the same time.

Good Sentences, installment the first

“Marriage is like two people locked up with one lesson to read, over and over, until the words become madness.”
—John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick