Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

By Reviewed by Elaine Showalter
Sunday, October 26, 2008


By John Updike

Knopf. 308 pp. $24.95

From Nathaniel Hawthorne to Shirley Jackson, American writers have been fascinated by the legacy of Salem witchcraft. Whether the good and wicked witches of Oz or the repressed and malicious teenage girls of Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," literary witches have represented our culture's attraction to, and fear of, female sexuality, empowerment and creativity. John Updike first attempted to update witchcraft in his playful novel The Witches of Eastwick (1984), which places three 30something divorcees in the late 1960s, the era of sexual revolution and women's liberation. Living in a seaside Rhode Island town, Updike's witches are desperate housewives who dabble in black magic for lack of something better to do with their intelligence.

All three are small-time artists as well: Alexandra, a sculptor of little clay figures; Jane, a cellist in a chamber music group; and Sukie, a writer for the local newspaper. When a devilish and seductive man named Darryl Van Horne moves into town with his hot tub, tennis court and Pop Art collection, they become eager members of his coven, participating in diabolical revels and midnight orgies that lead to catastrophic ends. The novel was made into a sexy movie starring Jack Nicholson, turned into a hexy stage musical produced by Cameron Mackintosh, and is now rumored to be under consideration as a TV series for ABC.

In his new novel, Updike has resurrected his witches in their late 60s and early 70s as widows of second marriages, who return to Eastwick for a summer vacation and attempt to atone with white magic for their earlier sins. As he proved in his brilliant Rabbit tetralogy and his hilarious novels about his literary alter-ego Bech, Updike is skilled at sequels. He 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. He is still a master stylist who reinvigorates cliché, as in comparing an old woman's dry brown fingers to pretzel sticks; and an astonishingly erudite writer, whose knowledge extends to American art, Baroque music, Chinese dynasties, Protestant theology, electromagnetic science and even Tarot cards and popular songs.

Unfortunately, Updike seems to know very little about the psychology, concerns and behavior of older women. Age has brought these widows neither insight nor humor; they have no feelings for their grandchildren, nor any interest in politics, popular culture or other people's problems. Updike describes them as ancient hags, emphasizing "the wrinkles, the warts and scars, the keratoses and liver spots, the slack muscles and patches of crêpey skin . . . the varicose veins and arthritic deformations with which time had overlaid their old beauty." They talk a lot about "sex after seventy," incontinence, cancer fears and what Updike calls their "nether parts." No deep thinker, Alexandra tells her 50-year-old daughter that sexism and job discrimination drove her into witchcraft: "Girls your age just can't realize how few opportunities there were for women when I was young. Our job was to make babies and buy American consumer goods. If we fell off the marriage bandwagon, there was nothing much left for us but to ride a broomstick and cook up spells."

Perhaps women have more opportunities in the 21st century (there are female physicians and a New Age minister in Eastwick now), but the widows have not taken advantage of them. Alexandra is still crafting the little female figures without hands or feet that she calls "bubbies" (babies? breasts? grandmothers?), a cross between the sculptor Niki de St. Phalle's colorful "nanas" and the primitive fertility figures of the Venus of Willendorf. Sukie, a writer of paperback romance novels, has become a gruesome cougar who likes to service much younger men. Moreover, Updike maintains, America is stuck in "another quagmire," and the continent itself contains a "dark countercurrent." Civilization, Sukie vaguely warns, has only a tenuous hold, and "there is this darkness waiting to sweep in again." Yet these dim forebodings never develop into a substantive critique of the Puritan roots of American culture, the ways sexual guilt, superstition and prejudice can lead to violence and destruction.

In lieu of understanding American malaise in terms of women's lives, Widows is padded with digressions and irrelevant details, lengthy travelogues and tedious lectures. Alexandra, widowed and alone in Santa Fe, goes on a tour to the Canadian Rockies, and soon she has reconnected with Jane, widowed and idle in Boston, to take a Nile cruise. Then Sukie, widowed in Connecticut, joins them for an excursion to China, with full accounts of its culture and history. Mercifully, before he schleps them to Antarctica and Peru, Updike sends the widows back to Eastwick on an unlikely holiday rental of the old mansion that Van Horne left behind. But without Van Horne, the life force and comic center of Witches, the women's adventures seem pallid and pointless. At the novel's end, Sukie and Alexandra are hopefully contemplating another tour, but for readers the spell is broken. ·

Elaine Showalter is professor emeritus of English at Princeton University. Her new book, "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx," will be published in February.

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