THE WITCHES OF EASTWICK

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 21, 1984

ISBN: 0449912108

Page Count: 324

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 1984

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in white society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her white persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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