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Originally published November 6, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 6, 2008 at 2:32 PM

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Book review

"The Widows of Eastwick": A bewitching update on three aging ladies

In "The Widows of Eastwick," John Updike revisits the three women who made such mischief in 1984's "The Witches of Eastwick" as they encounter the discomforts of aging, the enduring mysteries of sex and a young man bent on revenge. Updike appears Wednesday in Seattle as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures literary series.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

John Updike

The author of "The Widows of Eastwick" will read at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Benaroya Hall as part of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series. For ticket information call 206-621-2230 or go to www.lectures.org.

"The Widows of Eastwick"

by John Updike

Knopf, 308 pp., $24.95

John Updike has always had his share of detractors: feminists who accuse him of misogyny, moralists who deplore his fixation on adultery, critics who carp about his penchant for verbal ornamentation over storytelling.

Updike's new novel, "The Widows of Eastwick," may not quiet the rabble, but this update of his 1984 best-seller, "The Witches of Eastwick," is as nuanced and complex as it is clever. The sequel doesn't simply continue the story of its three female characters; it delivers gratifying reckoning and resolution.

Nearly four decades have passed since the witches' heyday. Alexandra, Sukie and Jane have long ago left the small town of Eastwick, R.I., with husbands they had "concocted" for themselves, and all are widowed and settled in different locales: Alexandra in New Mexico, and Sukie and Jane in New England. Now in their 70s, they are enfeebled by age and disease. Their lives are each in their own way flat and disconnected.

As younger women, in "Witches," they were wild and naughty, consumed by their freshly discovered powers of black magic and the sexual freedom of the late 1960s. They used sorcery for mischief at first, but eventually for evil, casting a fatal spell on Jenny, who had wed their devilish love object, Darryl Van Horne.

"Widows" starts in odd detachment and meandering. The oldest of the three friends, Alexandra, takes a trip to the Canadian Rockies. She reunites with one of the trio, Jane, to travel to Egypt, and then all three of them tour China, where they revive their powers.

The witches decide to return that summer for a few weeks to Eastwick, and this is where the novel takes off. The women encounter former lovers; wives of lovers; and an unlikely nemesis in Chris, Jenny's pasty, petulant younger brother who is bent on revenge. Chris has learned the dark arts himself, and wages wicked payback with spells that mess with their innards.

If the prolific and versatile Updike is seeking yet another genre to mine — he has written more than 50 books, including fiction, essays, poetry, memoirs and literary criticism — travelogue may be next. On her trip to the Canadian Rockies, Alexandra admires Canada's sensible history, in contrast to America's formation by "evangelical preachment of the Manifest Destiny ... that had hurled the agglutinated United States westwards and then outwards, across all the oceans, where its boy soldiers lost limbs and died."

But the characters are at the heart of this book, centered by Alexandra. Matronly and square, Alexandra provides a kind of moral coherence to the narrative. She is weighted down more than the others by their old crimes, and strives to make amends with "white magic" good deeds.

As in his other recent fiction, the 76-year-old Updike explores the changes that aging brings. Nearly everything is moderated for the widows: their sexuality, physical health and mobility, and their witchcraft. The author resists the temptation to reinvigorate his characters with sex, yet it wouldn't be Updike without recognition of how the libido can animate life and the imagination: "Sukie had imagined before turning old that quirks, bad traits, and mannerisms would fall away, without the need to make a sexual impression; without the distraction of sex, a realer, more honest self would be revealed. But it was sex, it turned out, that engaged us in society, and kept us on our toes, and led us to retract our rough edges, so we could mix in."

Sorcery seems an apt metaphor for John Updike's life's work, and yet his skills are more substantial than witchcraft. "Satan counterfeits Creation, yes, but with inferior goods," he writes knowingly. Although he has shifted some of the focus and themes of his writing, Updike's creations are superior in every way, and his powers remain undiminished.

The better for him to give us this canny marvel of a book.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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