Closing Thoughts on Witches

New book will be announced in tomorrow, but today I’m offering some quick and final thoughts on the third book of the Big Read, The Witches of Eastwick.

What the book does well is the small things. The way Updike describes magic and how his characters speak in sulky, middle class, bored tones, all of this is spot on. I kept thinking of the phrase “first world problem.” Sukie’s not inspired to write that novel, and her new gig in real estate is “too chancy.” Jane’s cello playing is criticized as “prissy.” And Alexandra’s sculpted figurines, her “bubbies” are not inspiring New York art dealers. Boo hoo. On top of all this misery, the malicious man they all are obsessed with, Darryl Van Horne, elopes with a younger and  blander woman. And so they plot to kill her. The genius of all of this is in the little hells that suburban men and women can find themselves in. Hell, in the town of Eastwick, is not knowing what to do with all your free time.

One of the most pathetic moments, late in the book, comes when the doomed other woman Jenny calls senior witch Alex/Lexa/Sandy (Alexandra’s nickname shifts like a mood ring throughout the novel) and hints that she knows who has poisoned her with cancer and wouldn’t it be ever so nice of Lexa to, well, undo this unpleasant curse? Alexandra’s response?

“My dear, I don’t know what you want from me…but I don’t have it to give.”

And then:

“As to this illness, it sounds to me as if you’re letting your imagination torment you.”

It is the most evil thing in the entire book, after the dooming the girl to die, this courteous flushing of Jenny down the drain. Polite murder most foul. Later, Alexandra laments that the witches should in fact undo the curse, saying “We can’t just kill her like this.” To which witch Jane replies,

“Why not? We kill people in our minds all the time. We erase mistakes. We rearrange priorities.”

For me this is where the novel succeeds. Witches of Eastwick shows the banality of evil in the New England village. It isn’t murder that is the wicked thing, but the pretending that you aren’t being murdered. Beyond all the silly sex scenes, the odd sendup of a devil character in Darryl Van Horne (who is a terribly inept and boring devil), and the Updikean overwriting, this insight into the evil of the American suburb saves this book from being a failure. It rightly points to the greatest sins of the first world problem sufferers. Sins of omission.

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