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The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

I came to The Witches of Eastwick as a big fan of John Updike. I had read Couples and the Rabbit series years ago, and loved his keen eye for human frailty and suburban malaise. He had a brutal honesty, that bordered on, and often crossed over, to cruelty in his depiction of his characters, which was something I’d never come across before in my reading.

While Updike originally approached The Witches of Eastwick with the aim of creating strong female characters, in response to criticisms of misogyny or an inability to create three dimensional women characters, but was essentially no different in its sometimes brutal honesty.

The story takes place in a small town in America where three recent divorcees enjoy afternoons sipping gin and gossiping about the local goings on.

It eventuates that the three have the power to tinker with the lives of others in the community … and sometimes do far more than tinkering – ruining marriages, and causing accident and disease.

The characters of the witches are intoxicating, as they neglect their children to visit exciting new man who moves into an abandoned mansion in their town.

While Updike’s cruel descriptions of his characters might be off putting for some readers, they are also sometimes hilarious and unnervingly honest.

One of the witches described a local woman:

“I kept looking at the mother wondering about these acrobatics she does for the circus, I just say she’s kept her figure; but her face. Frightening. So tough it was growing things all over it like you have on your heel from bad shoes.

And then of a local couple: “Raymond Neff taught music at the high school, a pudgy effeminate man who yet had fathered five children upon his slovenly, sallow, steel-bespectacled, German-born wife.”

In a way, reading Updike’s books is a bit like gossiping about people you don’t know. It is irresistible and strangely compelling, although it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. There is also a sense that Updike really doesn’t like women, and is as disdainful of real women and weak men as he is of some of his characters. However, this might be reading too much into his writing.

Fortunately, backstabbing book characters is nowhere near as nasty as the real thing, and the slight unease is worth if for the fun of Updike’s books. I’m looking forward to watching the movie, which was perhaps even more popular than the book. The Witches of Eastwick is well worth a read.

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