The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike

“Now the world poured through her, wasted, down the drain. A woman is a hole, Alexandra had once read in the memoirs of a prostitute. In truth it felt less like being a hole than a sponge, a heavy squishy thing on this bed soaking out of the air all the futility and misery there is: wars nobody wins, diseases conquered so we can all die of cancer.” – The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike’s scandalous novel takes place in a tiny beach town in Rhode Island during the late 1960’s, and centers around a coven of three witches in their thirties who come into their magical powers after getting divorced. Alexandra, the oldest and a brunette, makes a humble living by gardening and selling mini clay sculptures at local craft stores. Jane, the most cunning and a blonde, is one of the town’s only musicians and plays cello in local performances and teaches piano lessons. Sukie, a fiery red head, runs a gossip column in Eastwick’s small newspaper. Perpetuated by their mundane hobbies, the three witches constantly wish for more in life than single motherhood and being lady homemakers.

She went through some motions of housekeeping. Why was there nothing to sleep in but beds that had to be remade, nothing to eat from but the dishes that had to be washed?

Even though they all sleep with various married men in the neighborhood, the true ripple in their daily routines comes in the form of Darryl Van Horne: a mysterious and wealthy bachelor from New York City who moves into an empty beachfront mansion. Darryl Van Horne is a true anomaly in the quaint town, causing an immediate stir with his flamboyant New York wardrobe and mannerisms. Through his interests in art, music, and gossip, he seduces each of the witches individually. In a haze of liquor, weed, and steamy hot tubs, the three of them begin to show off their magic for their new friend and explore his inclination for sexual freedom.

The Witches of Eastwick has been applauded as a pro-feminist work and shows successful insights into the female psyche by a male author. The women dress in their ex-boyfriend’s clothes, wondering, “Why should [men] have all the comfort while we martyr ourselves with spike heels and all the rest of the slave-fashions sadistic fags wish upon us?” The late night orgies at the Van Horne’s mansion become less about pleasing Van Horne and more about pleasing each other:

That first night at Darryl’s, dancing to Joplin, they had clung together and wept at the curse of heterosexuality that held them apart as if each were a rose in a plastic tube.

The witches’ experiments with lesbianism only fuel their discovery that men are not essential for happiness and success. While they largely ignore and neglect their children throughout the novel, they pursue financial independence and “masculine” careers:

Sheer womanhood had exploded within her and she realized that the world men had systematically made was all dreary poison, good for nothing really but battlefields and waste sites.

The book was adapted into a 1987 film starring Jack Nicholson as Daryl Van Horne, Cher as Alexandra, Susan Sarandon as Jane, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Sukie.

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