New Book Selected! The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

We have a new book. We’ll start reading The Witches of Eastwick on December 1.

About Witches of Eastwick:

1984 novel by John Updike.

320 pp

What it’s about After Rabbit, Run, The Witches of Eastwick is arguably John Updike’s  second most famous novel. It tells the story of three divorced women living in Rhode Island. They are witches, but their magical powers, though vast, seem only another diversion from the daily boredom of middle-aged life in a small town, which passes through cycles of gossip, infidelity, dread of mortality, and plain old jealousy.  The witches don’t pay much mind to their powers – or their potential – and their wicked identities are a badly kept secret in the town. Then a new man arrives named Darryl Van Horne. He’s not a witch; he may be even worse.

This novel received a lot of attention for its attitude towards women and sexuality. It was made into an all-star cast film in 1987 that was moderately well-received. Updike wrote a sequel called The Widows of Eastwick that takes place 30 years later. It was the last thing he published before his 2009 death.

What Updike’s good at John Updike’s greatest talent is in writing dialog just the way people speak. He can make art and poetry out of the natural, if asinine, chitchat of everyday life. You may roll your eyes at a line, but only because it is so spot on in its silliness – and not because it is contrived novelese. Updike is also fanatical in his attention to detail.  The buildings and grounds of his fictional landscapes are so fully described you’re surprised they aren’t really there.

What Updike’s bad at These same talents are Updike’s greatest faults. There is just too much of what he does well. Too much talking and too much detail. Both habits diminish any momentum. Scenes of Updike novels drag and you’ll begin to wonder, I’m sure there is more interesting places to be. The plot comes out almost like the plot of a life, slowly and with a lot more talking about doing something than the actual doing of it. And, just as there is too much chitchat in his books, there is also too much detail. Everything is microscopically dissected and symbolic. It can get exhausting.

The other problem people have with Updike can be summarized by one critic who called him “just a penis with a thesaurus.” Updike’s books are very sexual, and sometimes I wonder if the sex is little more than a check on his academic side, like he wants to emphasize that he knows what people really care about.  The criticism is given extra heft when, amid a flurry of bookish synonyms, alliteration, and technical know-how, he’ll toss in a “fuck” or “shit” to balance out the rest. I’m no Pollyanna but it can get very detailed and very crass. You might wonder if he really means it, and if he does, why?

This is all objective, of course. What we can all agree on is that John Updike can string a sentence together and, at his best, it is a wonder to watch him work. Like the witches, it really can be magical.

So if you want to get on board, grab a copy of Witches of Eastwick for December 1.

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