THE WITCHES ARE BACK TO CAST THEIR SPELL AGAIN

Daily Express - - BOOKS - THE WID­OWS OF EAST­WICK By John Updike

THE Witches Of East­wick has had a longer af­ter­life than many books. It was made into a film in 1987, star­ring Jack Ni­chol­son, Michelle Pfeif­fer, Cher and Su­san Saran­don, and more re­cently into a West End mu­si­cal.

How­ever, it is not among John Updike’s most dis­tin­guished nov­els so it might seem odd that he has writ­ten a se­quel in which the three witches, preda­tory di­vor­cées in the first book, have given up magic and are grow­ing old un­grace­fully and alone. But the re­sult is en­gag­ing and even mov­ing, if a lit­tle thin. At the end of the last book, Lexa, Sukie and Jane have com­pleted their deal­ings with Dar­ryl van Horne, the “per­fect man” they con­jured up to­gether, and have left East­wick, the sea­side town in Rhode Is­land where they have caused so much mis­chief.

The new book starts with Lexa, the old­est, the most dam­aged by time and the first to be wid­owed, on a trip to Alaska. She finds her trav­el­ling com­pan­ions ir­ri­tat­ing and de­cides that she will not travel alone again. When she re­ceives a let­ter from her old friend Jane Tin­ker the pair go to Egypt to­gether. The coven is fi­nally re­con­sti­tuted when Lexa and Jane re­con­nect with Sukie, and choose East­wick as their hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion. In East­wick, they reac­quaint them­selves with old en­e­mies and make a dis­as­trous

at­tempt to re­vive their “half-baked sub­ur­ban va­ri­ety of witch­craft”.

The book con­tin­u­ally refers to its pre­de­ces­sor. Then they were young, in­sa­tiable and fear­less. Now, in the 21st cen­tury, they feel out of touch, sex­u­ally mori­bund and fright­ened of death.

Updike once de­scribed his ap­proach to writ­ing fe­male char­ac­ters: “I think of a man and I take away rea­son and ac­count­abil­ity.” The women in this book are not por­trayed con­vinc­ingly or sym­pa­thet­i­cally, and Updike takes a gloat­ing in­ter­est in their phys­i­cal de­cay.

To­gether with Updike’s fail­ure to sub­tly cor­po­rate his re­search into ev­ery­thing from quan­tum the­ory to Egyp­tian re­li­gion, this is the book’s cen­tral weak­ness.

Nov­el­ist Joseph Heller, au­thor of Catch-22, once wrote that there comes a time when writ­ers re­alise they have noth­ing new to say but still wish to con­tinue writ­ing. This is the case with Updike. He is no longer writ­ing es­sen­tial nov­els but is still tak­ing plea­sure in play­ing with lan­guage and in this un­am­bi­tious book, that is enough.

LEO ROB­SON

MOVIE COVEN: Cher, Saran­don and Pfeif­fer with Jack Ni­chol­son

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