by John Boland

About halfway through this sequel to the 1984 bestseller The Witches of Eastwick, I found myself doing what no conscientious reader likes to countenance, let alone admit – I started skimming the pages, hoping to follow the narrative thread without having to endure yet more of the author’s adjective-laden prose in which no detail is too small to go undescribed and no observation too trivial to be suppressed.

This, I know, is heresy. Updike, so the wisdom goes, is one of the great modern masters of fiction, an acute chronicler of the American age, his books holding a sardonic mirror up to that country’s fears and failings in troubled times. His prose, too, is extolled as being uniquely supple and graceful in conveying nuances of character and shades of feeling.

Why, then, do I usually reflect that, even in his universally acclaimed Rabbit novels, a good editor should have been employed to remove the flab and thereby make the books more pointed? This seems especially true of The Widows of Eastwick, a lazy and pointless return to the lives of the Rhode Island coven whose subversive antics weren’t even that beguiling in their heyday (the 1987 movie, starring Jack Nicholson, Michelle Pfeiffer, Susan Sarandon and Cher is regarded by Updike devotees as a travesty of the original, but at least it was fun).

Here the three women are pushing, or in Alexandra’s case just over, seventy, and they reunite in Eastwick to see what effect their past mischief has had on the strait-laced community. They’re doing this partly out of curiosity and partly in an attempt to assuage their guilt over a violent death for which they’ve always felt responsible. Their companion in sorcery Darryl Van Horne (Nicholson’s “horny little devil”) has long gone, but one of his protegees has returned, and he just might cause the women  some trouble.

So the plot, such as it is, goes, but Eastwick isn’t reached until 120 pages have passed. Before that, Updike treats us to an tour-bus holiday Alexandra takes in the Canadian Rockies and to a subsequent  holiday in Egypt undertaken by Alexandra and Jane. There’s no good novelistic reason for either of these extended sequences, and you’re left suspecting that the author himself had been on two such vacations and didn’t want to waste his observations about Americans abroad, the threat of Arab terrorism or the ubiquity of the internet and cell phones.

But at least there’s some spritely writing in these sections. When the women finally reunite in Eastwick (“to revisit the scene of our primes,” as Sukie none too wittily quips), the book shudders to a narrative halt. The town is as it used to be, except that everyone’s a good deal older now, and so we’re given constant  reminders of what age and infirmity can do to the body, the libido and the spirit.

Towards the end, one of the three women dies, possibly due to an act of hostile sorcery, while another piece of magic engineers a birth, but there’s no magic in the book and the reader is left wondering why Updike thought it was worth his or our while to return to his Rhode Island seaside town.

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