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John Updike’s ‘The Widows of Eastwick’

  John Updike is a long-respected member of the literary establishment, revered not only for his elegant short stories and novels (“Rabbit, Run”) but for his insightful criticism published in The New Yorker. Despite his reputation, Updike is not usually a big seller, certainly not in the league with the top 20 or so authors who keep the New York publishing houses afloat.
  But Updike — by accident or on purpose — delivered a huge hit with his 1984 novel “The Witches of Eastwick.” Compared with his more sober-minded novels, “Witches” is a light romp, heavy on devilish humor and NC-17 sex scenes.
  (By the way, the popular 1987 movie of the same name, starring Jack Nicholson, Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer, bears only scant resemblance to the novel.)
  The characters described in the book’s title are three middle-aged women living in the suburban town of Eastwick, R.I., during the tumultuous and liberating late 1960s. It just so happens that the women form a coven and practice witchcraft. You might describe the book as a more malevolent version of the TV comedy “Bewitched.” For younger readers, imagine the “Desperate Housewives” with magical powers.
  Although “Witches” has an all-in-good-fun vibe, the plot turns dark when the witches cast a spell that results in a young woman’s death. This is generally known as murder, although at least two of the witches feel little remorse about their malicious deed.
  Fast forward 24 years. Updike has written a sequel called “The Widows of Eastwick.” The witches are senior citizens and have not lived in Eastwick for many years. They all married and moved away from the scene of the crime, communicating with one another only occasionally. In the early pages of the novel, each goes through the difficult process of becoming a widow. They start talking to each other again, eventually arranging to take some trips together to see the world.
  Updike, it appears, has been doing some traveling himself. He goes into considerable detail describing the touristy sights of Canada, Egypt and China. One imagines that he kept good notes on his sightseeing trips and found a venue in which to put them to use.
  The sequel kicks into gear when the witches decide to return to Eastwick for a summer vacation. Certain residents of the town, with witchy powers of their own, have not forgotten — nor forgiven — the crime committed all those years ago. Conflicts ensue, ending with the death of one of the witches.
  The underlying theme of “The Widows of Eastwick” is the trials of getting old. The witches, once vivacious, promiscuous women, struggle with the reality that those days are long gone. At the same time, Updike deftly contrasts the differing experiences of the three women, with Lexa not only coming to grips with her golden years but finally feeling comfortable in her own skin.
  Predictably, “The Widows of Eastwick” is not as good as its predecessor. For one thing, the world traveling that fills a quarter of the book is practically irrelevant to the story. But for fans of the classic first novel, finding out what happens to the witches will be awfully difficult to resist.

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