The Widows of Eastwick is a reminder of the extraordinary talent of John Updike. He died last month of cancer at the age of 76. This is his last book, published last year. But this doesn’t read like the work of an old man. It has all the zest for life and interest in sex only the young are expected to have.
Updike demythologizes old age. The heroines of this novel are getting on in years, but they are still active, lively and one of them still has a sex life. So did the two others until they were recently widowed.
Yes, The Widows of Eastwick is a sequel to The Witches of Eastwick. I haven’t read that novel or seen the film. But this book recaptures the past through the women’s reminiscences.
The three women meet up thirty years after leaving Eastwick. They had remarried and lost their partners. Now they meet as widows. Alexandra, who is the central character, visits Egypt with Jane. And then Sukie joins them on a tour of China.
Then they revisit Eastwick with fatal consequences. There are other widows in the town who have not forgiven them their affairs with their late husbands. And they themselves feel guilty for the death of Jenny. The young woman married by their lover, Darryl Van Horne, who died of ovarian cancer after they had wished her dead through black magic.
A gay actor and his black magic
Now Jenny’s brother, Christopher, a gay, middle-aged actor, wants to settle scores with them. And he knows some deadly tricks, too, which he had learnt from Darryl.
Jane begins to get electric shocks after he comes to town, summoned by one of the local widows.
She suspects he is trying to kill her, but her friends don’t believe her until her pain grows worse, when she visits the doctor. Her friends then try to heal her through white magic, but in the middle of the ritual Jane passes out, spitting blood. She is rushed to hospital but can’t be saved.
Sukie confronts Christopher and accuses him of killing her friend, and he does not deny it. He tells her Alexandra will be his next victim.
Coolly, Sukie invites him to tea wanting to find out what he had learnt from Darryl. They end up dancing to In the Mood before a plainly disapproving Alexandra, who takes an instant dislike to their guest.
It all seems wildly improbable, but Updike knows how far to stretch credibility. There is nothing mysterious about the death of Jane, according to the doctors, who conclude she died of aneurysm of the aorta. The witches themselves are not sure of their powers. And there is a reckless streak in Sukie, which makes it perfectly natural for her to invite her friend’s supposed killer to tea.
It proves a clever move, for she ends up seducing him. Their sexual caper, which Alexandra discovers only much later, proves life-saving.
This is an entertaining novel, but not as light-hearted as the synopsis suggests. The older Alexandra – and not the sexy Sukie – is the central character. And through her the novel explores serious issues such as age, loss, social change, family relationships and friendships. She misses her husband and what brings her back to Eastwick is her daughter, who still lives there. Alexandra knows she has not been a good mother. So when her daughter joins her friends in persuading her to visit her old hometown, she agrees.
Sex with a purpose
Even the sex isn’t meant to titillate. Updike is showing what life is like as one grows old. Sukie’s sexiness, the women’s encounters with former lovers and rivals reveal old passions and jealousies and the zest for life that smoulder on past middle age.
But please don’t think it’s a women’s novel or old-age fiction.
Updike’s sensuous prose and wicked observations about life make it a good read for anyone who loves novels.
He can describe with loving detail even something as annoying as snoring. Here Alexandra is kept awake by Jane’s snoring in their hotel room in Cairo:
Jane, out of reach in her own twin bed, deep-breathed with an audible friction of inner membranes that knew no let-up. Each long intake arrived at a place of reverberation, a dip into nasal resonance at the exact same insistent pitch, it seemed to Alexandra, as her daytime conversation. Awake or asleep, Jane insisted, with a relentless, unforgiving will, on being heard…
Dissing the young
And babyboomers will chuckle at Jane’s putdown of younger generations as she sourly notes the changes in the old town:
“I remember Eastwick as a fun hick place,” complained Jane, “but it’s gotten homogenized, all smoothed out – the curbs downtown all fancy granite, and the Old Stone Bank twice the size it was, like some big bland cancer gobbling up everything. And the younger people, the age we were when we were here – ssso tiresome, just from the look of them, toned-up younger mothers driving their overweight boys in overweight SUVs to hockey practice twenty miles, the young fathers castrated namby-pambies helping itty-bitty wifey with the housekeeping, spending all Saturday fussing around the lovely home. It’s the Fifties all over again, without the Russians as an excuse. You wonder how they managed to fuck enough to make their precious children. They probably didn’t – it’s all in vitro now, and every birth is caesarean, so the doctors won’t get sued. People go around mourning the death of God, it’s the death of ssin that bothers me. Without ssin, people aren’t people any more, they’re just ssoul-less sheep.”
Updike could be so funny. It’s a pity he isn’t around any more. For The Widows of Eastwick ends with one friend ringing up another to ask a question which could have led to another sequel:
“Lexa?” the wary voice asked, with witchy intuition.
”Well,” Alexandra answered, pleased. “Where shall we go together this year?”