“You must imagine your life,” Alexandra confided to the younger woman. “And then it happens.” – The Witches of Eastwick, by John Updike
The full title of this book, according to Kindle, is “The Witches of Eastwick: a Novel.” What the hell else would it be, a pony, amiright? I was a much younger woman when I first read The Witches of Eastwick, and I decided to revisit it after reading an article on the internet wherein the author claims that John Updike was brilliant and that every word he ever wrote was pure gold.
The topic of said article was how to make yourself appear smarter, which is interesting because I should know that following random advice from the internet is a pretty quick way to make prove just the opposite. For example, I just read (on the internet!) about an online company that is selling herbal sachets for feminine hygiene purposes. Women are supposed to insert these sachets for “detoxification,” which makes me wonder exactly what the makers of this product think women have been doing that their most intimate and protected parts need detoxification. Smoking crack, perhaps, or soaking in water from Flint, Michigan. Regardless, we see what happens when we listen to the internet. I offer WebMD as exhibit B, never once having visited it without receiving an alarming diagnosis such as Bubonic Plague, or Anthrax.
I’m not going to disagree with the article’s author about Mr. Updike’s writing skills. He uses words very well, somehow both spare and descriptive, and I enjoyed reading a book where descriptions of people are made briefly. Pages aren’t dedicated to descriptions of the Mary Sue protagonist’s perfect body, brain, or personality. I also enjoyed the way the more salacious parts of the book were written. I knew what was going on without feeling like I was reading a romance novel, and I felt comfortable reading the book in public.
I even think the basic plot had a lot of potential. A group of women, divorcees in a time when divorced women still faced social criticism, develop magical powers while living in a small New England town. They meet a mysterious stranger who stirs their powers, and they attempt to find what they need to fulfill themselves in life. Sounds great, right? Don’t we all want that?
Hell no, I don’t want that, not if “finding myself” means fitting into John Updike’s idea of how women feel about themselves, men, and each other.
I believe it’s dangerous for a writer to attempt to write from the perspective of a different gender. Sorry – I think I mean sex. Apparently the gender v. sex debate is bitterly hot right now, to the point where you can’t even see a baby announcement on Facebook without a fight breaking out in the comments section, like it’s a Browns v. Steelers game combined with ten cent beer night all in one. I would never write something from the perspective of a man and assume to know what men are looking for. Now, I have written stories from the perspective of a man. I also wrote one from the perspective of a woman with multiple personality disorder whose other identify is a man – how’s that for progressive sex v. gender thinking for you, hah! In both instances, I did not attempt to describe the struggles of men, or what men want, or how men relate to each other. I mean, how the hell would I know what a man wants? I barely know what I want. In these stories I wrote about people, who want universal things that many other people want. I wouldn’t presume to know what men feel like in their gender (sex?) norm societal roles, and I don’t really care how they feel in their roles in the whole baby-making process. Frankly, I don’t care what anyone feels about their roles in the baby-making process. It’s complicated, messy, and involves tiptoeing around too many of peoples’ feeeeeeeeeeeeeelings.
What was I talking about? Oh yes. Updike being presumptuous. So the book starts with Alexandria, our main witch, making spaghetti sauce. It’s a typical housewifely task, and she’s thinking about her Italian American lover. She thinks about her weight and how it’s so typical of Italian Americans to love fat women, and how it was sooooo lazy of her to have an affair with him and accept her fat, rather than just diet. Huh. She also compares the red sauce to her period, which is disgusting and not something any woman I know would ever do. We’d make the spaghetti sauce because we like it, and not think twice about it. Then we’d eat about six plates of it, because spaghetti is just pasta, and food is delicious. It has nothing to do with our reproductive systems. It’s not a metaphor for that small, spicy window life when we’re most ripe for baby making. It’s just pasta. Already Mr. Updike has displayed a depth of knowledge about women that he may have acquired at age 11. Women think about their weight! They think about boys all the time! They love to cook! They have periods! “Yes, this is all women” Mr. Updike may have thought. “Also, my name is totally a euphemism for a penis. Heh.” I’m guessing, of course. He’s been dead for some time, so I can’t ask him what the hell he was thinking.
Alexandria has two friends, Sukie and Jane. They are characterized pretty harshly. Jane is angry, mean, a brilliant musician but full of hatred. Sukie is cute, perky and girly. Updike compares her to a monkey about five thousand times. Alexandria is somewhere in the middle. She’s shown as compassionate and sensitive, and is the most fully realized of the characters. Alexandria has good qualities and bad, and you can’t love or hate her. She’s just a person. If Updike had removed all of the talk about how she feel about babies, she’d actually be a pretty well written character.
The three women are friends, a coven, as they’ve all developed magical abilities. Later in the book we realize these powers come when a women is left by, or leaves, a man. They use these powers for small personal gain, but initially it doesn’t seem like they do anything too noticeable or offensive. The town is most offended by the fact that they all like to take married lovers. They like married lovers because they don’t have to worry about relationships. The lovers go back to their wives, and the woman can live their own independent lives. Kind of smart, right? I mean wrong. That’s what I should say. Maybe it would be better if they just took commitment phobic lovers? I think this would have been easier for them in 2016.
They live this way quite happily, if bored, until a stranger comes to town. Daryl Van Horne. If you’ve seen the movie, Jack Nicholson plays Daryl, and he’s portrayed as a devilish figure. In the book he reminds me of Mr. Shaitana from Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table. He’s an outlandish character who recognizes the bizarre in the women, and invites their friendship in such a way that the woman all fall in love with him. A collector. A collector of women. BINDERS FULL OF WOMEN! Wait…no.
They meet regularly at his giant mansion and engage in very intimate bath times together. The town is outraged by the goings-on at Daryl’s place. Three woman and one man! Imagine! We do have to use our imaginations quite a bit, actually. Mine must be boring, because I imagine them eating pizza together in the bath. So delicious, so wrong. Daryl is thought of by the women as someone who is wealthy, desirable and smart, while at the same time the facts on paper show him as fraudulent, pathetic, and a bit of a dilettante.
Of course, the friendship of the women starts to splinter the moment a man is involved. The whole time they’re cavorting naked together they’re starting to resent each other. When two new people, a brother and sister, join the mix, the situation becomes downright ugly. Gradually the witches use their powers for evil, until eventually a series of deaths has occurred, and the witches are barely speaking.
At the same time another coven is arising, formed of women who felt they have been slighted by Alexandria, Sukie, and Jane. The women of the conflicting factions speak of each other the way teenage girls might trash talk after school. Again, Updike displays a breadth of knowledge about women that seems to have peaked in junior high.
When the final conflict is removed from the women’s lives, they’re not really even friends anymore. Sad and lonely, they use their powers to conjure up ideal husbands, then move away.
So what we have here is a book about women, friendship, their desires, ambitions, and the gleeful shanking of societal norms turned a book about women who bicker with each other, get jealous, physically harm other women, and then are only happy when they find men to marry. How, exactly, is this progressive?
Taken as a whole, it’s not. I can enjoy the writing style, and the small nuggets of universal wisdom. I can appreciate women who come into their personalities and personal power only after failing at their first attempts to confirm to society in their first marriages. I especially love how the women are all mothers, but the children really only have about two lines. They’re almost absent from the book, mostly used as a foil for the opinions of the townsfolk. For a guy who has his characters go on and on about babies and fertility, the women sure hate the business of actually being moms. I also appreciated the casual way he blended protestant religion into the story, where people attend services but aren’t crazy religious fanatics. It’s rare to read a book where religion isn’t either the thing that personifies supreme good or supreme craziness.
While I enjoyed the writing style and I always love fiction that blends into the supernatural or sci-fi realms a little, ultimately I was disappointed with the message of this book. I think in terms of witchcrafty fun, the movie is better. Also there’s Jack Nicholson, who makes a pretty good Daryl and who is at once both comedic and frightening. Also, there’s a scene where Cher, playing Alexandria, wishes that she could turn back time. Brilliant! That’s what I call clever writing.
I fear this review may have delved into personal territory again, to which I say: tough shit. Really, you can get and forget and then suddenly remember your own blog. Really! It’s a lot of fun.