The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

Aside from the occasional short story, I hadn’t read much Updike before this. The Rabbit novels have been on my list for some time, but you know how that goes. I’ll get to them one of these days. I snagged a paperback copy of The Witches of Eastwick cheap at the used bookstore and decided to dive in.

What I liked most about the book is its oddball, imaginative plot. In Eastwick, a sleepy, seaside Rhode Island village, three close female friends, all divorced, spend their days in mostly mundane ways: gardening, walking the dog, gently neglecting their respective children. Thursday afternoons are reserved for drinking, snacking, and gossiping. Though Updike never truly details the extent of their witchy powers, it becomes evident that these three women are not quite normal (and later, it is revealed that any divorced Eastwick woman has similar powers). They mostly use their powers for silly things: conjuring a thunderstorm to clear an obnoxiously crowded beach, turning tennis balls into toads, or casting a spell on an annoying Eastwick woman so that whatever the witches toss into a ceramic jar falls out of her mouth (feathers, hatpins, dust bunnies, etc.).

When a newcomer to town buys the old Lenox place that’s nestled on an island in the salt-marsh (only accessible by road at low tide), Alexandra, Sukie, and Jane begin a torrid four-way affair that includes doubles tennis, hot-tubbing, art-admiring, and some wacky sex. Darryl Van Horne (possibly an assumed name), is an oddball scientist and very intrigued with the three witches. They begin spending more time together, and though the witches are quite loyal to each other, some jealous and protective feelings bubble up at times.

Meanwhile, each of the witches is entertaining another affair (or two) on the side and these tend cause some emotional issues here and there. I won’t spoil the climax, but things begin to spiral out of control when a murder surprises the townsfolk and brings feelings of guilt all around. However, the ghastly event gets even worse when the victim’s children come back to town for the funeral and also fall under the spell of Van Horne. Temper’s flare, spells are cast, calamity ensues.

That plot summary might have made it seem a little soap-opera-ish, but that’s not really the case. Each character is slowly and carefully constructed; the language is dense and well-woven. Updike, as has been proven over the years, is hugely talented. And I’ll make sure to note that the witchy-ness is anything but central. It does create some of the of the major conflicts in the book, but this is no adult Harry Potter. No broomsticks, no dragons, no Hagrid. These witches are subtle—their powers gently help them navigate the small-town, gossip strewn, affair-driven world in which they thrive and clash.

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