two-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
38-Jan-Feb-2009
By: 
John Updike
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-The Widows of EastwickIn 1984, John Updike published The Witches of Eastwick; the movie version seemed to captivate viewers more than the novel did. In this sequel, John Updike updates readers—or viewers—on the fates of the aging three witches.

The Story: In the early 1970s, Earth Mother Alexandra, cello-playing Jane, and sexpot Sukie left the suburban seaside town of Eastwick, Rhode Island, after they cast a deadly spell on a rival. They went separate ways, found new careers, and remarried. Now widowed and feeling the burden of their ages, the former coven reunites on tours of Canada, Egypt, and China. Then, to right past wrongs, they decide to return to Eastwick for the summer. It’s soon evident, however, that their former powers are sorely lacking: when one of the women tries to resurrect her supernatural powers and cast a counterspell, tragedy strikes. As ever, Updike casts a keenly observant eye on the town’s social fabric and landscape, all the while exploring female friendship, empowerment, and aging.
Knopf. 308 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307269604

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"Who can resist Updike on veiled heads glimpsed in a Cairo market (‘lively liquid eyes glared like the bright backs of captured beetles’) or on Mao in his coffin (‘evenly coated with orange makeup not quite the color of living skin’)? … His sorcery is startlingly fresh, page upon page." Sam Tanenhaus

Minneapolis Star Tribune 3 of 5 Stars
"The Widows of Eastwick is as solemnly frothy as its predecessor, and readers who try to decode its message for masters theses (Is witchcraft a metaphor for feminism? Does freedom from men give women their real power? Does Updike actually like women?) may be missing all the pointless fun. Updike still casts a very clever spell, making sorcery seem possible simply by pointing out the practical challenges of present-day magic." Laura Billings

Boston Globe 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Updike is fine with the everyday normality of his three aging women, but he does not summon up a psychic drive in them sufficient to power the witchery. They do not perform magic; they perform magic tricks." Richard Eder

Christian Science Monitor 2 of 5 Stars
"Updike is gentler with his aging witches than he ever was when they were in their prime, allowing them some rueful humor and scenes of genuine friendship. … Widows isn’t as misogynistic as its predecessor, but it’s hard to imagine anyone but Updike acolytes finding it anything but a well-written mess." Yvonne Zipp

Entertainment Weekly 2 of 5 Stars
"In this misbegotten sequel, The Widows of Eastwick, the once-saucy witches of John Updike’s 1984 fantasy return to the scene of their mischief—but now they’re senior citizens with weak bladders and receding gums. … The magic is definitely gone." Jennifer Reese

New York Times 2 of 5 Stars
"The passage of time seems to have mellowed the witches and their creator as well, and The Widows of Eastwick, while deeply flawed, is a less tendentious, more emotionally credible work than its predecessor. … [Updike’s] leading ladies are more compelling not as supernatural sorceresses but as ordinary women, haunted by the sins of their youth, frightened of the looming prospect of the grave and trying their best to get by, day by day by day." Michiko Kakutani

Washington Post 1.5 of 5 Stars
"[Updike] closely follows the three-part structure of Witches and meticulously recycles Eastwick’s geography and social details, down to the ‘old spatter-pattern blue enamel pots’ Alexandra uses for pasta; the ancient horse trough in the center of the town square, now planted with juniper and dwarf spruce; and the sermons at the Unitarian Church on Cocumscussoc Way. … Unfortunately, Updike seems to know very little about the psychology, concerns and behavior of older women." Elaine Showalter

Critical Summary

If it weren’t for the popular film version (1987), it’s not certain that The Witches of Eastwick—playful rather than powerful like the Rabbit novels and accused by some of misogynist leanings—would have remained as popular as it did. Yet, despite lukewarm reviews, those who enjoyed that first novel may find something to like in this sequel. Widows resurrects the fun of the original, and Updike is, as usual, a master stylist with sharp, sensual writing. Some critics, however, were thrown off by the contrived premise, the initial aimless travelogue, and the sappy subplots. A few even suggested that Updike doesn’t adequately understand women’s aging, though the New York Times argued that the witches are most compellingly understood as ordinary women. In sum, Widows is a mixed bag, best enjoyed by readers curious to see where Updike’s brand of feminism has landed him 25 years later.