Some writers like to return to familiar territory, and perhaps none has done so more often than John Updike, who has given us four novels and a coda about Rabbit Angstrom, three collections of stories featuring Jewish writer Henry Bech and a generous helping of stories about the marital ups and downs of Richard and Joan Maple. So it comes as no surprise that after almost 25 years, the now-septuagenarian writer has at last resurrected the trio of suburban sorceresses who animated one of his most successful, if enigmatic, novels, The Witches of Eastwick.
As its title announces, The Widows of Eastwick finds Alexandra, Jane and Sukie much further along in life, each having buried the husband she conjured for herself before fleeing Eastwick at the end of the first book. Thirty years later, the witches have all but lost touch with each other. Alexandra, the arty "earth mother" and the eldest, has spent the last few decades in Taos, New Mexico. Jane, the sharp-tongued cellist, has been in Boston living with her old-money husband and centenarian mother-in-law, while sex-happy, second-rate writer Sukie has settled in suburban Connecticut with an odious salesman as her mate.
As the novel begins, the newly widowed Alexandra is taking a bus tour of the Canadian Rockies, confirming what she already knows—that group travel as a "single supplement" old woman is not for her. So, when she learns of Jane's husband's death, she decides to call her fellow widow and rekindle their friendship. Soon after, the two women set off together on a cruise down the Nile. When Sukie's husband dies (there is a vague hint, never pursued, that Jane may have precipitated his death with a bit of black magic), the coven reunites for the first time and takes a trip to China. But Alexandra's more limited finances preclude another of these exotic excursions, and while casting about for somewhere affordable to go, the widows decide to return to the scene of their ignominious triumphs—the Rhode Island coastal town of Eastwick.
The only summer rental they can find is a condo that, ironically, has been carved out of the old Lenox mansion, better known to readers of the first novel as the place where warlock Daryl Van Horne led Alexandra, Jane and Sukie down the debauched path of maleficia. In Eastwick itself, there are still residents, most now as old as the widows, who bear grudges against the women. Significant among these is Greta Neff, widow of one the witches' former lovers (they had many in the town), herself purportedly a witch. Greta summons Christopher Gabriel, once the boy-toy of Van Horne and the brother of Jenny Gabriel, the witches' young rival and victim. Not long after Christopher arrives in Eastwick, bent on revenge, Jane begins to suffer terrible, unexplained electrical shocks and is diagnosed with a painful and perilous medical condition. The witches attempt to reignite their "cone of power" to disastrous effect.
As with The Witches of Eastwick, a reader must be willing to accept the notion that witchcraft is real, at least within the parameters of the story, for the novel to work. And there has long been debate over what Updike is trying to say about his witches. Are these women good or evil? Is their witchcraft a plausible reaction to the patriarchal world that had pushed them down (remember, the first book was set in the '70s, before "feminism" became a bad word in certain circles) or just an unleashing of their sexual power? Are we supposed to like these often unlikable women, or merely accept them on their own terms?
The Widows of Eastwick does not provide any more clear-cut answers to these questions than the first book did. Indeed, the three women's ostensive motive for returning to Eastwick—nostalgia combined with a wish for redemption—remains largely unfulfilled. Aging, grief, waning nature (in the guise of sex), death—these are the gloomy realities that hover over the pages of what is essentially a novel about the end of life. The Widows of Eastwick may not be Updike's finest—or most cheerful—work. Still, this eloquent, ruminative and often wise novel bears the stamp of this masterful storyteller's art.