A sequel by its nature invites comparison with its predecessor, and John Updike’s The Widows of Eastwick is no exception. The novel picks up the stories of the three principal characters Updike first created in his 1984 best seller The Witches of Eastwick, a mixture of graphic realism and magical fantasy set during the early 1970’s in a socially conservative Rhode Island seaside community. In that novel Alexandra Spofford, Jane Smart, and Sukie Rougemont, all in their thirties, seem to possess the ability to perform black magic. When they come under the spell of the mysterious Darryl Van Horne, a stranger recently relocated to Eastwick, they begin engaging in a series of sexual orgies and rites of black magic that wreak havoc on people who cross their paths. This tale of powerful women, published when discussions of feminism and women’s roles in society were still center stage in the American consciousness, was widely popular at the time of its publicationalthough it was heavily criticized by many ardent feminists for treating serious women’s issues with a certain sense of patronizing smugness. Additionally, millions who never read the book became familiar with the story through the 1987 film adaptation starring a trio of screen celebritiesCher, Susan Sarandon, and Michelle Pfeifferas the witches, and legendary film star Jack Nicholson as Van Horne.
Some of the same attractionsand faultsof the earlier novel are present in The Widows of Eastwick, which picks up the stories of Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie as they find themselves alone, widowed after years of marriage to men whom they met after fleeing Eastwick some three decades earlier. It is possible to read this novel without knowing anything about Updike’s earlier story featuring these characters. Enough hints are provided in The Widows of Eastwick to let readers know what had happened thirty years before to explain why the return of these women to Eastwick would be cause for concern, not only to the townspeople but to Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie as well.
To resurrect these characters who were once examples of female power involves quite a gamble, but Updike manages to use these women to elucidate new themes about the problems of growing old in American society. At the same time, readers familiar with Updike’s earlier novel will find his portrait of the aging witches particularly poignant. These once-strong women are now merely aging grandmothers whose everyday struggles with failing health add to their deep awareness of their inconsequential presence in a society that values youth and physical fitness.
The first third of the book focuses on attempts by all three women to fill the void in their lives created by the deaths of their husbands. The opening scenes trace the journey of Alexandra, widow of New Mexico potter Jim Farlander, through the Canadian Rockies, where she tries with mixed success to enjoy the scenery and the company of fellow travelers, one of whom seems to take a romantic interest in her. Not ready for new commitments, she returns home to New Mexico and shortly thereafter reestablishes contact with former friend (and fellow witch) Jane Tinker, who has recently lost her husband, a rich Bostonian. The two arrange for a trip to Egypt, during which they reminisce about their days in Eastwick, Rhode Island. Although the excursion is not as pleasant as Alexandra had hoped it would be, within a short time the two find themselves traveling together again, this time in the company of their Eastwick friend Sukie Mitchell, also a recent widow, who prompts them to join her for a tour of China.
These journeys allow readers to see how the women have changed in thirty years. They are also intended as prelude for a more important trip that takes the three back to Eastwick, where they had originally met and where, under the influence of the diabolical Van Horne, they had virtually abandoned their families (and eventually divorced their first husbands) to engage in a series of sexual orgies that had allowed them to demonstrate to themselves and the community their newfound freedom and power as independent women. Unfortunately, they are painfully aware that their earlier experience had ended in disaster: Several people lost their lives, and the three women were convinced that their magic had led to these deaths. As a result, in the sequel, the three agree to return to Eastwick, where they hope to make amends for the calamities they had helped bring about. They manage to rent space in the same mansion Van Horne had ownednow refurbished into apartmentswhere they intend to reconstitute their witches’ coven to see if they can reverse some of the damage they had caused.
(The entire section is 1931 words.)