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Updike once more, as in A Month of Sundays, is writing in homage to Hawthorne. In a small Rhode Island shore-town, Eastwick, three divorced women and mothers in their late thirties--Jane Smart, a cellist; Alexandra Spofford, a sculptor of small gift-y figurines; Sukie Rougemont, a gossip columnist for the local newspaper--make up a coven: "In the right mood and into their third drinks they could erect a cone of power above them like a tent to the zenith, and know at the base of their bellies who was sick, who was sinking into debt, who Was loved, who was frantic, who was burning, who was asleep in a remission of life's bad luck. . . ." But their witchery, though truly supernatural (supernumerary nipples, flying, telekinesis), is relatively unfocused until the arrival in town of Old Scratch himself: New York-pushy, fast-talking, hot-tub-owning, Pop-art-collecting, science-experimenting Darryl Van Home. And so begin the sabbats, presided over by Darryl--in the hot-tub, on the tennis court, over spicy hors d'oeuvres and sensual massages. But when Jenny, the grown daughter of Sukie's dead lover, arrives to settle her parents' estate, and stays to become Darryl's wife, the magic turns from harmless white to specific black. The witches are jealous, bemused; Jenny soon contracts cancer in accordance with voodoo-doll rituals; when Jenny dies the witches suffer guilt; the town rises up against them with some counter-witchery of its own. (Updike seems to suggest that all women are potential witches.) And, frightened by their own powers, the three turn to conjuring up new husbands for themselves. . . as hagdom closes in. Updike treats much of this as no more than a bagatelle--with some measure of doodling. ("She was in a wool pullover dress scarcely larger than a sweater, sharp orange in color; this color made with the sofa's vile green the arresting clash one finds everywhere in Cezanne's landscapes and that would be ugly were it not so strangely, boldly beautiful.") Elsewhere, the approach is that of social comedy: the time is the late Sixties, with saps of consciousness on the rise. But the novel works best when Updike turns it into Hawthorneesque natural allegory. The witches are body-aware, air-alert, fluid-filled creatures, completely attuned to biology--which allows Updike to write about nature (rank or pretty, raw or stable) more gorgeously, with more painterly effects, than he's ever allowed himself before. The comedy may be less than sure (Darryl/Devil is a too-obvious sleaze); the supernaturalism is a little shtick-y; Updike's odd sensual Protestantism remains murky. But what you keep coming back to, on nearly every page, is Updike's landscapist's paintbox--which is grand and lush and astonishingly fluid.
Pub Date: May 21st, 1984
ISBN: 0449912108
Page count: 324pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15th, 1984


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