Reading New England: The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick (1984)

eastwickWhen I said I planned to read The Witches of Eastwick for the Reading New England challenge, I also said I didn’t expect to enjoy it — and I was right, I didn’t. So this is going to be one of the rare times on this blog when I talk about a book I did not like at all. Usually I prefer not to spend my blogging time on negativity, but this time I do want to try to work through my thoughts and see if I can articulate them in a comprehensible way. If you’ve read the book, I’d be very interested to hear yours as well — whether you agree with me or not.

According to the author himself, this is a book about female power; some even consider it a feminist book. But the power is entirely negative, life-denying, solipsistic. The witches themselves (three middle-aged women in the coastal Rhode Island town of Eastwick, who gain magical powers upon losing their men through divorce or death), are primarily interested in having affairs with a succession of local men, crowned by the newcomer to the town, Darryl Van Horne. All the men are unattractive, but Darryl — who is never explicitly identified with the Devil — is the most horrendous of all, with his ice-cold semen and rampant vulgarity. Yet the witches are obsessed with him and become murderously jealous when he takes up with a younger woman, with disastrous results. Does this lead them a moral awakening? No, only a few minor qualms, followed by escape with another set of magically conjured men. The end.

It was striking to me that the witches are all mothers, but they have barely any scenes with their children. They complain about them, they plot how to get them out of the way so they can have sex with their lovers, they groan about what terrible mothers they are. But we almost never see them interacting with them, and more than anything else, this made the book seem like a male fantasy to me. Get the children out of the way; insinuate yourself into the female brain, and see how all she thinks about is you, you, you. Other women are just obstructions to be gotten out of the way, or to make victims of petty revenge and spite; even animals who interfere with the pursuit of selfish pleasure are simply objects to be destroyed at will. And men are also objects of mere desire, disposed of when they become boring. Naturally, female power has a dark side, and maybe that’s all that Updike set out to portray; but I do not believe that’s all there is to it.

The handling of magic also bothered me. The book’s premise is that when women become free of the confines of marriage, they become witches in the literal, medieval sense: sprouting extra nipples to suckle their familiars, saying backwards Latin chants, making wax figures, and so on. This seems to be Updike’s idea of a joke; the novel takes place during the Vietnam era, when such women in a small town would indeed have been thought of as witches — so why not make that the truth?

The thing is, this spontaneous arising of witchcraft out of nowhere does not entirely make sense. Sometimes it’s intuitive and psychologically true (the witches making an image to destroy their enemy); other times it’s silly and over the top (turning tennis balls into various objects during a game). Some of their spells are primitive forms of sympathetic magic; others are more sophisticated, like the backward prayers that pop into their heads untaught. The mix of magics felt random and sloppy to me, and too un-subtle in its manifestations.

Was there anything I did appreciate? Well, Updike writes in a highly sensuous, tactile way, and turns some beautiful phrases. Nearly every description turns into a sexual reference, of course, making one feel trapped in the mind of a twelve-year-old boy, but at doing that he is very effective. Darryl, in all his sliminess, was a rather brilliant modern take on the unholy charms of the Devil; his sermon (held in a Unitarian church) was disgustingly mesmerizing, and his “Vote for me” ending fit right in with the political situation, both then and now. And there was one character for whom I felt a smidgen of sympathy and understanding, one of the men who is driven by the witches into madness and suicide. Finally, I felt there was a human character I could believe in — not particularly like or identify with, but at least find convincing. So it might be worth reading one of Updike’s books centered on the male perspective, where his writing might ring more true. This one, I’m afraid, held no magic for me.


Reading New England: Swim That Rock

John Rocco and Jay Primiano, Swim That Rock (Candlewick, 2014)

SwimRockSwim That Rock focuses largely on the most notable feature of Rhode Island’s geography: its coastline (which, as I mentioned in my state preview, covers almost 400 miles in a state less than 40 miles wide). And it dwells in loving detail on one of the human activities that has taken place there for untold generations: quahogging, or fishing for the hard-shell molluscs that abundantly populate Narragansett Bay.

This is not an activity that I would normally expect to capture my interest; I don’t even like clams, for heaven’s sake. But authors John Rocco and Jay Primiano write so fervently and engagingly that I couldn’t stop reading. It helps that they have created  a central character who is easy to like: fourteen-year-old Jake Cole, who can’t accept the death of his father at sea or the possibility that loan sharks will repossess the family diner and force him and his mom to move to Arizona. He takes to the water, determined to do something to save the way of life he loves, in the only way he knows: by fishing as hard as he can.

Encounters with shady characters provide excitement and local color, but it’s Jake’s elemental striving to wrest sustenance from the depths of nature, his quest to push himself beyond physical and mental limits, that is the real heart of the story. The authors (who grew up in a town very like Jake’s and are experienced quahoggers themselves) succeed in making us feel that we too have grappled with bullrakes and recalcitrant engines, with blisters and exhaustion and the need to pack in just one more load.

While the setting is brought to life with vivid immediacy, the character development is not quite so successful. There is an intriguing but rather perfunctory love interest for Jake, who I wish had gotten to tell more of her own story, and a father figure who is conveniently sidelined so that Jake can be on his own. Jake’s mom and best friend also remain somewhat shadowy, cardboard characters.

There’s still plenty of narrative drive and energy from the scenes on the water, though, and plenty of reasons to enjoy this fast-moving but emotionally satisfying story of adventure. If you’d like to experience something of what it means to grow up in Rhode Island, among the fishermen and women who are so much a part of its history and identity, do give it a try.


Reading New England: Rhode Island

Reading New England

Though in its topography it’s the flattest of the New England states, Rhode Island is a place of contrasts. It’s the smallest in area of all the fifty states, but has the longest official name (“State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations”). In spite of its small size it contains the third most populous city in New England, Providence, and is also the second most densely populated state in the nation after New Jersey. It was the first state to declare independence, but also a major center of the North American slave trade during the colonial period. Struggling fishing towns and wealthy resorts rub shoulders along its convoluted coastline, which covers 384 miles in a state only 37 miles wide.

A postcard from Westerly, via Wikimedia Commons
A postcard from Westerly, via Wikimedia Commons

By my count, there are relatively few books to be found set in the Ocean State, but there are definitely some standout titles that should be on many a reading list. These include one of my favorite novels of all time, Theophilus North by Thornton Wilder; John Updike’s supernatural satire The Witches of Eastwick; and some of the bizarre horror tales of HP Lovecraft, including his only novel, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.

A number of popular contemporary writers have chosen a Rhode Island setting for their recent novels: The Vineyard by Barbara Delinsky, A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams, and Moonlight Becomes You by Mary Higgins Clark, are a few examples. All sound like good choices for your next beach vacation.

The Elms, one of the famous Newport mansions. By Sixlocal via Wikimedia Commons

Nonfiction titles are even harder to find, but a couple that look interesting are The Great Hurricane, 1938, about the infamous meteorological event that hit the state especially hard, and The Prince of Providence, story of the “longest-running lounge act in American politics.”

As for my personal reading list, I’ve also already mentioned Swim That Rock, a coming-of-age novel I’m excited to start; and I may take a crack at The Witches of Eastwick, even though I doubt I will enjoy it. I feel like I ought to read something by Updike at some point.

What would you like to read from Rhode Island? Do you have any other recommendations for our list?