“He says my intonation is prissy!”

This book grates on the ears. I keep going back and forth on whether I am enjoying it.

One of the three witches of the title, Jane, is a cellist. Though exceptionally bourgeois, she takes offense that a fellow musician chides her playing style as “prissy.” What to make of this? The character is prissy, of course. But worse than that, the whole book is prissy. Even the slick, devilish antagonist Darryl Van Horne cannot help name dropping modern artists and confessing he believes Beethoven “sold his soul to write those last quartets.”

Maybe this was typical conversation for the 60s, when the novel is set, but it is hard to tell if Updike wants us to be rolling our eyes at these characters or wishing we were like them. He’d probably say the characters are realized enough that they are who they are. If you find them prissy, it isn’t his fault. But it is. The narrative voice continues to be overwhelming in alliteration and puckish euphony. An author can’t write a whole book in this style and then say it’s part of the gag. An example:

Healing belonged to their natures, and if the world accused them of coming between men and wives, of tying the disruptive ligature, of knotting the aiguillette that places the kink of impotence or emotional coldness in the entrails of a marriage seemingly secure in its snugly roofed and darkened house, and if the world not merely accused but burned them alive in the tongues of indignant opinion, that was the price  they must pay. It was fundamental and instinctive, it was womanly, to want to heal – to apply the poultice of acquiescent flesh to the wound of a man’s desire, to give his closeted spirit the exaltation of seeing a witch slip out of her clothes and go skyclad in a room of tawdry motel furniture.

There’s also a hangup on a particular phrase. Each character seems unable to hold back on making broad sweeping statements (I know, guilty myself) with the lines “All that X!” or “All this Y!”

“There is all this human spying.” [p 40]

“[He’s] Like Liberace, only without all that smiling.” [p 52]

“”You’re over there all the time now with all this music.” [p 77]

All that growth. you can feel Nature groaning, the old bitch.” [p 82]

We’re still early on, so here’s hoping for something better.


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