It begins with a telephone conversation. Alexandra Spofford stands at her sink while her uppity friend Jane Smart hisses about a man buying the Lenox Mansion. Using his signature storytelling prowess, Updike then expertly weaves in foreshadowing,
“As if in a crystal ball she saw that she would meet and fall in love with this man and that little good would come of it.”
The novel, which takes place in the Vietnam era, is decidedly un-PC; however, it is not devoid of charms. Updike transports the reader to the small Rhode Island village, ensconcing them in the local color. He even makes the three antiheroines of the notorious coven, absolutely likable. The coven, made up of three divorcees (simianesque titian beauty, Sukie Rougemont, the obstinate Jane Smart, and the motherly melancholiac, Alexandra Spofford) holds their “calorie-rich” rituals on Thursday nights, all the better to erect “the cone of power”.
Newly divorced, the women have taken to the workforce: Sukie, always nibbling on salty, nutty foods, is a reporter for the Eastwick Word, fiery Jane offers music lessons, and Alexandra (or “Lexa”) sculpts “Bubbies”, similar to Niki de Saint Phalle’s “Nanas”.
They are wicked witches; Lexa has a torrid affair with Italian plumber, Joe Marino, through out the novel, while bad luck Sukie has an ill-fated fling with her editor, Clyde Gabriel (which ends quite fatally). But the meat of the novel is the girls’ interaction with Darryl Van Horne, or, “The Devil” himself.
Van Horne comes from New York to buy the sprawling Rhode Island mansion, displacing the snowy egrets in the process (much to Lexa’s chagrin). Van Horne also ends up seducing all three witches. The novel rises up to wild sixties fun on Halloween night, when a drug-fueled three-way set to Janis Joplin transposes the coven and their master to strange new territory.
But all does not remain well; following the murder suicide of Clyde and Felicia Gabriel, doe-eyed innocent, Jenny and her sulky brother come to town. Sukie, feeling guilty about the passing of her parents, invites Jenny to Van Horne’s estate for tennis. It does not go over well.
Through out all this, Updike tells the story as if he’s an old Eastwick native and this is the classic gossip murmured in Nemo’s Diner or The Bakery Coffee Nook, thus forever adding to the lore. I read this book every Halloween, and still find myself transported, even missing the sassy broads.
It’s no wonder that in 1987, director George Miller and John Updike created the cult classic film adaptation. Starring Cher as a decidedly more confident Lexa, Michelle Pfeiffer as a slightly more timid (and fertile) Sukie, and Susan Sarandon as a still feisty Jane, the film is great fun–but not an apt replacement for the book itself (good novels always exceed their cinematic counterparts). Certain details were cleaned up: Lexa, Jane, and Sukie don’t sleep with half the town, Jenny Gabriel is scratched out, and Darryl Van Horne (played by Jack Nicholson) is far more menacing.
Miller changed Sukie’s penchant for nuts to a love of spray cheese, and Lexa’s fecund garden of tomatoes becomes Sukie’s kingdom for zucchini. It is Jane who runs closest to her biblio-counterpart, but she’s decidedly safe-for-work unlike her feisty and horny source material.
Every fall I find myself re-reading The Witches of Eastwick, and every year I recommend, loan, and even buy, copies for my friends. I remember when I first bought my copy, a .25 cent and much loved 1983 version with wrinkled, dog-eared pages. After finishing it for the first time, I had two minds about it, but oddly, as it rested there on my bookshelf, I’d miss whole passages out of nowhere.
My love for the book came slowly, I couldn’t exactly write it off. The coven, with their Thursdays of martinis, cashews, and pâté lingered in my mind. I wanted friends like that, I wanted tipsy Thursdays with “my girls”, rife with calorie-rich goodies and magic. Hell, I wanted a coven! By the third autumn, after lending it to my best friend, Katie, I had purchased my second copy (which I ultimately, and gleefully, lent to another friend). This year alone, I bought three copies, two of which I gave away. While I enjoy the movie (I watched it after re-reading it at the beginning of the month), it’s not the same as the Eastwick I visit in my mind. There’s no Nemo’s, no Bakery Coffee Nook, no dog familiars.
It’s a classic book to me, a favorite of mine next to Anna Karenina. Every fall I have a long list of Halloween inspired books, and every fall I always mark to read it just as the leaves are beginning to change. My favorite memories of reading this book are spent on my couch around sunset, the vapor of tea in my favorite mug rising in the brisk air, while Canadian geese honk out their funny song as the sun descends over the changing trees. It’s always with some bittersweetness that I shelve the book for the better part of year. Eastwick remains fallow in my mind, a serene little east coast town I find myself longing for, not unlike how I yearn for Tolstoy’s Russia.
Updike’s classic story seems to endure; every four years or so, some wild-eyed producer will get it in his/her head to attempt to resurrect the girls and update the story. In an era of #squadgoals, I wouldn’t be shocked to see an executive over at ABC Family (now Freeform) shoot a pilot based on the novel for the Pretty Little Liars generation. Updike’s Eastwick is a lot like Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Stars Hollow: it’s a place you want to visit in the fall, with friends you wish you had.