Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book 51: The Witches of Eastwick

"There was so much dirt in life, so many eraser crumbs and stray coffee grounds and dead wasps trapped inside the storm windows, that it seemed all of a person's time- all of a woman's time, at any rate- was spent in reallocation, taking things from one place to another, dirt being as her mother had said simply matter in the wrong place."

Dates read: May 8-11, 2016

Rating: 3/10

Lists/awards: NY Times Bestseller

Sometimes I feel like a fake "serious reader". Which is the most ridiculous first world problem, I know. But there are so many of the classics, so many high-profile novelists, that I haven't read: Murakami, The Count of Monte Cristo, Faulkner, Catch-22. And until now, John Updike. But a secondhand copy of The Witches of Eastwick, which I'd seen the very cheesy 80s movie version of quite some time ago and enjoyed watching, came into my path and I decided it was time to cross that one off my list.

And this is one of those instances where (at least for my money), the movie was better than the book. They both have a similar setup: three socially outcast women living in a small town in Rhode Island become involved with a mysterious stranger, Daryl Van Horn, who comes to town and chaos ensues. In the movie, the women become witches under Daryl's satanic influence, and band together to turn against him when he causes harm. But that's not where the book goes. The book is much darker, and it suffers for it. When you're dealing with heavy stuff like magic and death and the devil, you need a little levity to keep it from dragging.

When Updike opens his novel, the three women (Alexandra, Jane, and Sukie) are already witches. A widow and two divorcees in a small town in the early 1960s, they are outside the conservative social order and each others' only real friends. They aren't especially nice people: they frequently behave spitefully, none of them are at all involved in their children's lives, and are all sleeping with married men. When Daryl Van Horn, the devil hisownself, arrives in town, he doesn't imbue them with power as much as heighten their ambition (and start having orgies with them, of course, because that's apparently what the devil does). While all of the women have romantic designs on Daryl on some level, they share him relatively peacefully until a younger woman, Jenny, joins their group and eventually succeeds in becoming Mrs. Van Horn. The witches are jealous and band together to use their magic to kill her. Van Horn then skips town with Jenny's younger brother and the women each, eventually, conjure up a good man and themselves depart Eastwick.

Like I said earlier, it's a lot of pretty heavy material without much to lighten it up. The women have some small moments of sympathy, but are largely negative people that aren't very enjoyable to read about. You would think that the literal devil would be a compelling character, at least. He's supposed to be interesting, right? Not as Updike writes him. Daryl is never written as even particularly physically attractive, much less the charismatic wily schemer you would expect the Prince of Darkness to be. There was no one to care about, much less identify with or root for. Updike's writing is good (if you're into the flowery-language-and-run-on-sentences kind of writing, which I tend to be), but the story falls completely flat.

Because I didn't like the book, I spent much less time thinking about it and its plot as a story and more time wondering if I thought this was, as it is usually considered, a feminist work. On the one hand, you have women who are close friends, who have discovered and own their power, who have the sex lives they want to have, who are not defined by their motherhood, and who are unapologetic for any of this. While we're often presented with narratives about men who behave in an antisocial manner and asked to consider them the heroes of the story, The Witches of Eastwick is a rare example of this phenomenon for female characters. On the other hand, they aren't given many redeeming features, either: they aren't funny or really all that interesting, they're petty, and they're driven to a murderous jealous rage over...a man. Their "happy endings" only come when they've each found themselves...a man. I think on the balance, it's more feminist than not, but I will qualify that by saying that Updike writes terribly about the experience of being a woman. When he writes about sex or menses, it's cringeworthy. And even if it's mostly feminist, that doesn't mean I have to like it. I didn't, and I wouldn't recommend it. It's just not fun to read.

Tell me, blog friends...what major works or authors haven't you read yet?

One year ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

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