The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike

Being one of my favourite films I have always wanted to read John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick because the general rule is that the book is always so much better than the film, so in my head this meant the book was going to be amazing. I have also meant to read Updike again ever since I read Couples which was a choice at my old book club back in 2010. So I admit that I entered into the spirit of reading this one in high hopes. I have to tell you whilst The Witches of Eastwick has some similarities to Couples it has very little similarity to the film other than the characters names, it was quite unexpected.

Penguin Modern Classics, paperback, 1984 (2007 edition), fiction, 320 pages, bought by me

There is something in the air in the town of Eastwick that turns women into witches, generally when they leave or are left by their husbands. Alexandra, Sukie and Jane are three such witches and as they have become friends, with their Thursday nights of cocktails and gossip, they have formed rather a powerful bond and indeed a rather powerful coven. These three ‘independent’ women sleep with the married men of the town, seemingly casting a spell over them, until a stranger by the name of Darryl Van Horne arrives taking over the local Lennox Mansion and wetlands and soon the three witches are competing to vie for the attentions of one mysterious man.

What initially, and I should add pleasantly, surprised me about the novel was the fact that these three witches were just that, witches. They could cast spells on the people they didn’t like (which at various points becomes very important and quite horrifying), throw fortune in their favour, hex you, levitate, create storms and quite literally drive men mad. Yet brilliantly Updike just makes this all part and parcel of a life in a town in Rhode Island in the 1970’s with the Vietnam War making its presence felt in the background. No one in the town seems to really bat an eyelid, what they don’t like it change and Daryl Van Horne is very much change, magic they barely bat an eye to.

Alexandra counted the seconds until the thunder: five. By rough rule this made the storm she had conjured up two miles in diameter, if these strokes were at the heart. Blundering thunder rumbled and cursed. Tiny speckled sand crabs were emerging now from their holes by the dozen and scurrying sideways towards the frothing sea. The colour of their shells was so sandy they appeared transparent. Alexandra steeled herself and crunched one beneath the sole of her bare foot. Sacrifice. There must always be sacrifice. It was one of nature’s rules.

Yet these are not the sort of witches I would want in my neighbourhood because, rather surprisingly to me because of the film, these women are not that nice, more often than not they are actually quite nasty witches and quite nasty bitches. In some ways this is rather fascinating as we see these women who have become friends, though I was never quite sure why as they had slept with each other’s husbands in the past and could be quite malicious about the other, turn against each other and several people of the town.

At the same time though I found this confusing. What was Updike trying to say about women? You see initially Alexandra (in particular), Sukie and Jane seem like thriving independent women who are getting the most out of life. That I found a really positive and feminist stand. However soon enough not only do we discover they are sleeping with most of the married men around the town, as I mentioned including each other’s husbands before they ridded themselves of them. Then as Darryl turns up they turn on each other and become calculating and manipulative man eaters (especially Jane who I despised) who will trample on each other to get the man before realising they are going to have to share and so start having group sex regularly, to please their man – classy. Oh and heaven help any woman who then tries to get in on the act. Where is the sisterhood then? The book soon becomes the polar opposite of feministic as it twists and turns.

Like most good school teachers he was a tyrant, unctuous and insistent; in his dank way he wanted to sleep with everybody. Jane was sleeping with him these days. Alexandra had succumbed a few times in the past but the episode had moved her so little Sukie was perhaps unaware of its vibrations, its afterimage. Sukie herself appeared to be chaste vis-à-vis Neff, but then she had been available least long. Being a divorcee in a small town is a little like playing monopoly; eventually you land on all the properties. The two friends wanted to rescue Jane, who in a kind of indignant hurry was always selling herself short. It was the hideous wife, with her strawy dull hair cut short as if with grass clippers and her carefully pronounced malapropisms and her goggle-eyed intent way of listening to every word, whom they disapproved of. When you sleep with a married man you in a sense sleep with the wife as well, so she should not be an utter embarrassment.

As I read on I became more and more frustrated for the book as it became more and more apparent that Updike’s novel for feminists, with a little research I discovered that is what he called it, was more like an evocation of his ideals of feminism. Also known as women who will basically sleep with each other and all the men and don’t mind overall but if one puts a toe out of line then you might end up with a terminal illness hexed on you, or worse.

Updike’s prose, as with Couples which interestingly has similar themes and similarly vile characters, is wonderful. The descriptions of Eastwick and its inhabitants are marvellously created and you feel you have walked the streets, chatted to the locals and headed out to the wetlands once you have finished. He also really looks at the society of certain times and how the world was changing far faster than people wanted it to. Again, magical goings on are fine, but building a tennis court (the scene in the book is even better than the film) or changing the name of a street is an utterly heinous idea. Change is not good.

Felicia’s beady eyes furious eyes flashed. “No you wouldn’t. You wouldn’t think Shithouse Square had such a bad ring to it either. You don’t give a damn about the world we pass onto our children or the wars or the we inflict on the innocent or whether or not we poison ourselves to death, you’re poisoning yourself to death right now tho what do you care, drag the whole globe down with you ith the way you look at it.” The diction of her tirade had become thick and she carefully lifted from her tongue a small straight pin and what looked like part of an art-gum eraser.

I am torn with The Witches of Eastwick as a novel. Unusually I much preferred the film. I guess on the level of a tale of three witches in a small town who are pulled apart and against each other over a new man on the scene it is a darkly entertaining read. I also loved all the magic in such a suburban setting. Not that you have to with a book by any means, but don’t expect to like any of the characters or find any real redemption anywhere, well maybe with Sukie, maybe. As a feminist work it falls flat, really it’s a male chauvinists view of what the fantasy, or maybe even nightmare, of feminism is – the twist almost at the end really highlighting that. Puzzling indeed.

Who else has read The Witches of Eastwick and what did you make of it? Did you dislike the witches as much as I did? If you want to hear more about the book Gavin, Kate, Rob and I discuss it on the latest episode of Hear… Read This! so do have a listen. Which films have you seen that are better than the books, or give the characters and situations of a book a better context, do many of them exist?

5 Comments

Filed under John Updike, Penguin Books, Penguin Classics, Review

5 responses to “The Witches of Eastwick – John Updike

  1. I have mixed feelings about the movie. I tried to read this book years ago, but just couldn’t get into it. Interesting question about a movie providing better context than a book. I can’t think of one that really does that for me, but I do think the visuals of a movie can add a richness to a time period and/or place that books can’t. Unless, I suppose, you’ve been to the place or lived during that particular time period, then books can be a short-hand way to get there or be there again.

  2. I generally consider Updike my arch-nemesis after reading his essay, “The Disposable Rocket” back in university. I found that essay so blatantly full of boastful male stereotypes that I just wanted to puke. Example: It’s a shame I can’t throw myself down the stairs at parties to impress women with my male physical abilities and quick recovery time any longer. <–No thanks. Anywho, I have a feeling this one would get my hackles up. But I've always secretly wanted to give it a go.

  3. I read Rabbit, Run after looking forward to it for a LONG time and was really disappointed. He does write beautiful prose, but Rabbit was just such a bore that I found the book a real slog. I don’t even want to read the rest of the series. I thought the movie versions of Jean de Florette and Manon Des Sources were wonderful renderings of slightly dull books.

  4. Hmmm yes, one of the very rare examples of film being better than the book IMHO. However I still count the Rabbit quartet as some of the best books ever written and his short stories are just incredible pieces of art.

  5. I have to say that I much preferred the novel to the movie – though I think this is largely down to my own personal taste. Despite not liking the movie a great deal, I did however find that it contained some particularly powerful imagery that has stayed with me (I’m thinking of the fruit scenes – cutting tomatoes still makes my stomach turn!) As for the novel being completely misogynistic, I’m not convinced. Don’t get me wrong there are points where Darryl is unbearably patronising towards and about women, and I can understand how the novel can be seen to reinforce patriarchal conceptions of women. However, I can also see the other side of the argument. For me the novel is largely concerned with women’s power over themselves, their surroundings and indeed men and so their own sexuality. I found the continuous linkage between women, witches and nature especially interesting; these connections have been around for centuries and have been used by feminists throughout history to empower women (Cixous, de Beauvoir, Irigaray). In the novel (I think) women are empowered by these connections not forced into them by patriarchy. But all interpretations are subjective and overall I actually really enjoyed this novel – much to my surprise!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s