The Witches of Eastwick

by John Updike
Knopf, 307 pp., $15.95

John Updike
John Updike; drawing by David Levine

Writers are always drawn to witches. It’s witchery they themselves aspire to, seeking for their own words the powers of spells. Other people fear witches and occasionally burn them, as they occasionally burn books and even authors. One senses in the tone of John Updike’s new novel about modern witches both the writer, who gets behind his creations most of the time, and the private citizen, who fears and dislikes them, but he negotiates out of the paradox a witty novel of manners, in this case the manners of America during the Vietnam era and of a small New England town, which seems, as Updike’s towns usually do, more full of hanky-panky than our town.

Jane Smart, Sukie Rougemont, and Alexandra Spofford are three women stranded by divorce in Eastwick, Rhode Island, where they cope with the various exigencies that compel divorcées—kids, cars, deteriorating houses, not enough money. Besides witchcraft, they bravely pursue part-time jobs as, respectively, cellist and music teacher, reporter for the local newspaper, and sculptress of kitschy figurines for the local gift shop. Against the suspicious and disapproving world of Eastwick, the three form a coven, or what might today be called a support group, sharing confidences about which of the local husbands they are sleeping with and other problems. Occasionally they collaborate on a spell against some collective enemy. Magic is a metaphor for social forces, as perhaps it always has been.

There is a rich, diabolical warlock, the satanic Darryl Van Horne, hairy and compelling newcomer in town, who accepts their sexual favors, directs their career choices, and generally represents masculine power and a male point of view. They bask together in a cauldron hot tub and he preaches, as the devil does, in church. Eventually he runs off with a local boy, one of the many jokes in the novel, but in the meantime affronts his three witch friends by marrying a pretty young thing, Jenny, whom they kill with a spell that causes her to waste away horribly, first enduring pain and chemotherapy. This gruesome demise is more than the three intended and scares them, but they are otherwise unrepentant about the damage they do. They are basically nice women just trying to get along.

And they are wonderfully well-drawn. In these times, a writer of either sex attempting to speak as the other is scrutinized for offense. One may venture into the mind of the opposite sex, but verisimilitude is thought to be beyond a writer who attempts to render the physical experience of being the other. Men know (they say) that Joanne Meschery, in an excerpt from a new novel, hasn’t got quite right her description of a lone male sailor: “For once he used the pump toilet rather than aim a casual piss overboard, that small act he’d been enjoying with a touch of defiance, like someone indulging in the forbidden.

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