The Witches of Eastwick

My book club settled on reading this Updike book the morning that he passed away. We hope we didn't contribute to this.

I finished reading this last night and while I know I didn't love it, I must admit that the writing was exquisite and the plot certainly made me think, and I imagine I shall keep thinking about it for some time.

A brief summary: The Witches of Eastwick unsurprisingly focuses on three witches who live in the fictional Rhode Island town of Eastwick during the late 1960s. Magic witchy power is established as the result of leaving or being left by a man, and so our three divorced women have formed their cozy coven, where chief activities seem to be drinking and discussing the other people in the small town of Eastwick (particularly the married men they sleep with). While the witches themselves seem to help create a good amount of the town's gossip, the real show starts when the dilapidated mansion on the edge of town is purchased by a devilish single man named Darryl Van Horne. A mysterious scientist and collector of tacky art, the women are quickly drawn into a foursome with this fellow, assembling to play tennis and enjoy orgies in his hot tub. But after a shocking event in town that occurs midway through the book, things can't possibly stay the same.

Whenever I read a male author writing about an intimate circle of women (or vice versa, I imagine), I tend to pause and consider if it all rings true. I suppose the thing that surprised me most was that I did fine Updike to be fairly accurate with his women (treating them perhaps more as human beings rather than women), but once in a while, there was a false note or a simplistic detail that didn't quite feel right. But overall, that was my only true critique of the writing itself.

In various reviews, I have heard this book declared to be misogynistic. Now... I'm not entirely sure that I agree with the accusation, but I do find a few things to be interesting on that topic of the male/female dynamic/power struggle. For instance... The insertion of this male figure into a circle of women as a plot point. At first, I assumed he might have magic powers, thus making him more a warlock in command of a coven (after all, he seemed to be a scientific genius and a musical prodigy, as well as quite cold to the touch), but he turned out to be impotent in that manner of speaking... Just a devil genius who wasn't so very devilish as simply debauched (which is perhaps fitting for a lesser demon who isn't even so strong as to really wreak true havoc). The three women become completely wrapped up in his existence, bending themselves to fit his needs and yield to his requests -- he even starts to direct their creative energies (for example, Alexandra, a sculptress, abandons the small figurines she had previously done at his suggestion that she work in a larger medium, only to end up discouraged). While their relationships prove interesting (both as a larger group and as individuals played off of each other), Darryl ultimately isn't as interesting a figure on his own so much as he's interesting for the effect he produces on those around him.

Another notch against Updike in terms of a misogynist accusation is the ending (which I shall not explicitly state here). Sure, we have ladies who appear rather unhappy or at least unsatisfied throughout the course of the novel, but I find it hard to believe that things could turn out so tidily after the three join together to cast a spell that intends to bring death to another character. I wasn't exactly expecting equal comeuppance or anything, or even punishment for their actions, but it seemed a little too neat in how we backed away from what appears to be happy endings all around.

To the idea of magic... I have a small problem with the initial idea that a woman's powers only manifest themselves as a result of a man -- being left or leaving. It seems to be a somewhat male concept that magic would only come from this particular relationship break. He kept rather close to certain ideas of witchery, but it seemed a very fluid thing in the novel that popped up when it was convenient or amusing. One thing I did like, as it pertains to witchcraft, is that oftentimes, the magic was used for rather selfish little things. Now... I think that some more good natured magic could have been injected (we got a good look at squirrel-killing and such), but it's an interesting concept that, since magic became part of their existence like anything else, there wasn't a particular devotion to only using powers for good or evil. It helps, I suppose, that it wasn't as though they were incredibly powerful. Alexandra creates a rainstorm to clear a beach so her dog can run. Sukie turns milk to cream for her coffee. Jane seemed somewhat disappointingly ordinary as a witch when it turned out she could fly.

In any case, clearly you can tell from my half-formed thoughts that this was an interesting novel and I'm quite looking forward to my book club's discussion of it. I've been told that this is not a characteristic Updike novel, but as long as his writing is of such a quality elsewhere, I shall certainly be reading more of his work in the future.

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