I once had the opportunity before a reading to suggest to John Updike that I particularly admired what I called his “arabesques”. (A term from Poe that, though he never defined it for us, suggests a playful re-imagining or distortion, emphasis on “playful”.) I referred to novels such as Brazil, S., and Gertrude and Claudius, books that took Updike away from the suburban setting of most of his work into more imaginary, less real territory. Later that evening, in front of the audience, he confessed a special fondness for his works of this type.
Both The Witches of Eastwick and its sequel The Widows of Eastwick, here under review, are arabesques. (They are also, along with S. and Roger’s Version, all related to The Scarlet Letter, its characters or its milieu.) As such, they are great fun to read, but, perhaps because Updike believes that veering away from his suburban realism should allow him greater freedom with his themes, the arabesque leads him to having it both ways. And he can’t.
Published in 1984, The Witches of Eastwick is the tale of three young, widowed witches, Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie, all with children, modest careers, and a variety of lovers, including, at times, each other. Their coven is disrupted when a powerful warlock moves into a nearby mansion and proceeds to conquer them individually, then collectively. A fourth young woman, all seeming innocence, is brought into the mix, happily at first. When she manages to marry the warlock on the sly, the witches create a spell that eventually kills her. Not only do they get away with it entirely, they are rewarded with three new husbands.
The novel has enormous vitality and the main characters are memorable. The rub is that Updike forgets to even hint that it is not okay for people, even if they dabble in witchcraft, and especially witches he wants us to think are also interesting and attractive people, to kill people. The moral ambiguity, really moral obliviousness of the novel, is disappointing.
The new book begins 30 years later. Alexandra, the presiding consciousness of both books, has lost a husband once again, after three decades of reasonably contented bliss. She decides to take a tour of the Canadian Rockies. Later, the second witch Jane calls, also newly widowed, and they take a trip down the River Nile. The pattern repeats itself with Sukie, with the three elderly widows traveling to China.
The first 100 pages are what I call “tour guide fiction”, Updike polishing up the notes he’s taken on his own various travels. Virtually nothing happens, but we are regaled with descriptions of Banff and Lake Louise, Cairo and the tombs along the Nile, the Imperial City, and the Great Wall. Happily, Updike’s prose is as elegant and incisive as ever. Describing Alexandra settling into a tour bus, he writes, “She took one of the few seats left and was conscious of the vacancy at her side, as if of a monstrous wen throwing her face out of symmetry”.
This hint of the women’s witchy past is the only one we get until, 60 pages later, Jane curses a bat out of the Egyptian night sky, watching it, “cease its darting motion and plummet like a small broken umbrella into the river’s lingering sheen”. In China, the three make a loquacious tour guide believe he’s seeing the Emperor’s terra cotta army march and sing. So much for the draggy first third of the novel, whose sole purpose in terms of plot has been to bring the coven together again.
Things right themselves when Sukie and Jane, with the help of Alexandra’s daughter Marcy, convince Alexandra to spend two summer months back in Eastwick, perhaps, as Sukie quips, “to revisit the scene of our primes”. What they find is largely unchanged, family-owned restaurants are now run by chains, the downtown streets have had a facelift, and the residents still remember the three witches only too well. Old lovers are no longer young and old lovers’ wives still remember the humiliation of their betrayal.
In particular, the widow of a music teacher, who was once Jane’s lover, still seethes with hatred of the three witches and coaxes back to town Christopher Grant, the brother of the woman they murdered, with this entreaty: “They are here. All three of them, bold as you please. All old and shameless and useless, vermin under foot. Kill them. Kill them as they once did your innocent sister kill.”
It would be to give away what little fun the novel offers to describe how Christopher goes about his revenge, and whether he succeeds or not. And, though entertaining, it’s hardly the point. This is a book about growing old and as the title of the last chapter states, “Guilt Assuaged”. Heartbreaking scenes between Alexandra and her needy daughter, and a ludicrous, sometimes funny, and oddly tone deaf (in terms of dialogue) Witches Sabbath, entwine the author’s own ruminations on mortality with Alexandra’s, and to a lesser extent Sukie’s, numerous regrets. Jane remains unrepentant, self-consciously evil to the last.
Which leaves only my earlier point to touch on, Updike’s moral fecklessness. Perhaps Updike returned to Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane precisely to right their wrongs. This time, not everyone gets away with it. But guilt assuaged is not the same thing as a sin atoned. Updike hedges his bets. The always-sibilant Jane says, “People go around mourning the death of God; it’s the death of ssin that bothers me. Without ssin, people aren’t people any more, they’re just ssoul-less sheep.”
Admittedly, the book’s two feel good moments occur when two of the witches succeed in a “good deed” to somehow compensate for the past. But, to put it in a way that won’t give anything away, you can’t make it right for killing someone in a robbery just by giving the money back. And that’s what this confused and overlong novel attempts to do.
In his memoir Self Consciousness, Updike describes a ride home from a skiing trip, sitting next to one of his friend’s wives, and reaching under her clothing to provide a “comradely” rubbing of her clitoris. That word “comradely”, charming in its way, has always made me wonder about Updike’s moral compass, and The Widows of Eastwick has me still wondering.