04 December 2009

And they all fell under their spell

"Puritanism had landed smack on that rock and after regaining its strength at the expense of the soft-hearted Indians had thrown its steeples and stone walls all across Connecticut, leaving Rhode Island to the Quakers and Jews and antinomians and women."

I cannot lie, I picked up this book because of TV. As mentioned in my library queue post, I had to watch the pilot of "Eastwick," which I enjoyed slightly at best, and began to question that this premise had fueled not only a novel but also a movie, a play, a musical and two TV pilots prior to this one. The show has since been canceled, but I resolved not to judge author John Updike's work based on, for example, being asked to pretend that Lindsay Price is unattractive when she has her hair up and her glasses on. (Come on!)

The first surprise waiting for me in THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK was that it was set in my former home state of Rhode Island. The second, that this book is very funny and cutting. And the third, that this book isn't really about witches at all. You already knew that, because you're smart, but I'm just getting there now.

It's true that Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, three friends in the bucolic town of Eastwick, are all witches. But their neighbors don't suspect and dislike them because of their powers, but rather because they're all divorcées rumored to be sleeping with some of the town's married men. In fact, they all are, and continue to do so after the appearance of wealthy stranger Daryl Van Horne, who -- spoiler, because I feel like it -- embarks on separate affairs with all three after a Halloween night to remember in which they all get high and have a foursome in his custom hot tub. (Speaking of Bad Sex in Fiction though! Like the other sex scenes in the book, I found this one alternately funny and over-detailed; I think the author goes out of his way to make them untitillating.)

While carrying a moderate load of scorn for the radicalism outside their borders, especially after one of their lovers runs away with a teenage girl and goes underground, the witches participate in it in this trickle-down capacity, mostly heedless of the consequences until their arrangement with Van Horne goes awry. Updike attributes this to their desire to heal others, which I read as a fairly tongue-in-cheek summation of their own justifications for the affairs, although from reading around I see the debate over how the author really regards these women has been going on more or less since it was published. In some ways, they're far ahead of their fellow citizens, but prove to be just as petty and mean as them when they have to be.

Maybe it's embarrassingly on the nose to use images of witchcraft to portray these three working single mothers, standard bearers of feminist change -- and in case you don't get it, Updike finally delivers the sanctimonious stay-at-home mother saying of them, "I don't know why those women bother to go on living, whores to half the town and not even getting paid. And those poor neglected children of theirs, it's a positive crime." (To be fair, her husband was having an affair with one of them.) But I thought it was clever. This book in fact spills over with cleverness; one potent image contained both a dirty joke and a semiotician's dream of an analogy. The author flirts with obviousness -- a late scene set in a church contains a Randishly pompous, interminable speech -- but doesn't fall in love with it.

My exposure to Updike before this has been slim but I own RABBIT, RUN and am looking forward to checking out more of his books. At the same time, I'm not all that curious about the 1987 movie or the 2008 sequel to this book, THE WIDOWS OF EASTWICK; I guess I'm satisfied with the ending of the story as presented here.

FTC cover-assery: This was a library book and the back cover copy (this edition) calls it a "hexy, sexy novel." Oh, the wrongness.

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