Wednesday, February 18, 2009

book review: "the widows of eastwick"*

I have a confession to make. Before The Widows of Eastwick, I had never read anything by John Updike (although, I did see the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick, which is sort of a prequel to this one. I'm not sure how faithful the movie was to the book. Given Hollywood's track record in this regard, I imagine the book and the movie were fairly different).

The Widows of Eastwick, picks up some 30 years after The Witches. As the title suggests, the three witches find themselves widowed, reconnect with each other and (after doing some travelling together) return to the earlier scene of their crimes. The mansion in which they partied as younger women has been turned into condos and they decide to rent one for the summer.

None of these women is very likeable, nor did I find it easy to relate to any of them (not sure if this was in part because I am so much younger - although I have read and enjoyed books with much older protagonists before). I did very much enjoy the writing, although I found that the dialogue was more an opportunity for the women to pronounce on the world, as opposed to really engaging with each other:

Jane looked aged in the harsh desert light, shrunken. Blue veins writhed on the backs of her hands. "There's this stink to the past," she said, "of magic that stopped working. It never really did work, of course. Just gave the priests more power than was good for them."
"If they believed it worked, maybe it did. It made them less anxious. As I remember us in Eastwick, we used to believe that there was an old religion, before men came in and took it over just as they took over midwifing and haute couture. It was a nature religion that never died - women carried it on even when they were tortured and killed."

The book is less about what is happening in the present and more about looking back to the past. The women are motivated by a desire to make amends for their crimes (causing the death, through witchcraft of a rival and of some other people who appear to have been thorns in their sides) and to relive their wild and powerful youth. The whole thing feels more like a padded short story than a full length novel. Some interesting things do happen but I found it hard to feel too interested.

As I was reading this book, I learned that Updike had died. I feel a bit guilty that I can't write a more positive review. I am very confident that this, the last of his novels, was not his best work by any stretch of the imagination. And perhaps I would be feeling less critical if I had read and enjoyed The Witches before reading this one.

Updike must have been grappling with cancer as he wrote this book and there is lots of talk of cancer throughout. The women killed their rival by giving her ovarian cancer and Alexa (one of the witches - the one played by Cher in the movie, I think) is obsessed with cancer.

I didn't hate this book. I just didn't really like it. I was expecting so much more.

Any Updike fans out there? How does this book compare to his other works? I would love to know.

*This is book was sent to me via Library Thing's Early Reviewer Program.


Michael said...

Updike is at his best about people being their worst.

He is not an Idealists cup of tea.

laurie said...

And what are you saying about me, Michael? ;-)

FlippyO said...

I've never read any Updike, nor seen "The Witches of Eastwick", although I think I saw lots of commercials for the "WoE" when it came out. I do like what Michael said about Updike, about him "at his best about people being their worst", so I may have to go through some reviews and pick out an Updike book or two at the library.

I noticed that you're reading "Hurry Down Sunshine" - I just finished it and wondered how you were liking it. I wasn't thrilled with it, and I'm usually someone who likes a book with any medical details. I felt like the book meandered a lot, without anything significant happening. I found the Hasidic family interesting, but they weren't involved long enough for my tastes. Although, I suppose I can't argue that they weren't involved enough in a true story, if they just weren't around any more than was written. Nonetheless, I thought the Hasidic family was the most interesting part of the book. Alas, it wasn't about them.

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Colin Alexander said...

I highly recommend the first novel, which this sequel refers to in both theme and plot. The characters are not likeable, but that itself is the attraction; Three women not afraid of being equally as awful as men.