Monday, March 23, 2009

Another Updike

The late, prolific John Updike wrote The Witches of Eastwick in 1984. Though not considered one of his best works, I elected to listen to as a Random House Audio CD series, effectively read by Kate Redding. In this mid-career novel, Updike deals with adultery, active libidos, and the nuances of daily life in a small town where secrets and disatisfaction frequently dwell barely below the surface. His three female characters, all divorced or widowed, come together to drink, cast spells and compare adulteries, having slept with a variety of men, often the same ones. Their witchcraft talents and extracurricular activities are hardly a secret in this small community. Alexandra is an earth mother who makes small erotic statues sold in local stores, as she tends to her garden, her children, her body. Jane is an intense and often angry woman who tackles the cello with an urgency and intensity consistent with the way she lives her life. Sukie is a warm, very sociable woman who seems a bit naive in her fascination with everyone in town, somewhat sanctioned by her job as a society columnist for the local newspaper. Evidently Updike is not known for his sympathetic portrayals of women, who are often either jealous, vindictive, naive or they are the sex objects causing these emotions in the other women in his novels. All of the above occurs around a newly widowed younger woman in town as they find themselves vying for the attentions of Daryl Van Horne, a loud, sexually hungry, brassy (yes, devilish) New Yorker with a secretive past and unknown source of wealth.

This is not a great Updike novel, but his masterful prose is again in evidence. It's never plot heavy, and his prose is often beautiful. His insights are sharp and perceptive. He sometimes meanders as he interrupts a scene to lovingly describe the characters' thoughts or their physical surroundings. You have to pay attention sometimes not to lose the point of a conversation. However, you are rewarded for your effort with a deeper understanding of the characters. And this small Rhode Island town of Eastwick is so vividly described that you feel you could walk through the streets and know the surroundings by sight, much as you remember towns from your youth.

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