The Witches of Eastwick book by John Updike is a feminist novel disguised as a complex metaphorical fantasy. The three main characters, middle-aged mothers that were empowered both literally and figuratively by divorce in a midlife crisis, acquire supernatural powers that mirror their newfound psychological strength. The closer the bond between the three and the more confident they are, the more powerful their witchcraft becomes. Updike’s novel is the story of a coven of women that obtained their witchcraft abilities by accepting themselves as they are: divorced and neglectful mothers who put their desires before those of others, to the horror of most townspeople except the newcomer, Mr. Vanhorn, a devilish addition to their lives…

So many of Alexandra’s remarkable powers had flowed from this mere reappropriation of her assigned self, achieved not until midlife. Not until midlife did she truly believe she had the right to exist…

the witches of eastwick book
Bookshelf with art by Tole N art

What Is The Witches of Eastwick Book About?

Updike’s story focuses on a small town’s coven of witches: Alexandra summons thunderstorms, Jane floats on air and Sukie turns milk into cream. The three witches are bored of the routine and responsibility of adulthood, as well as the small town gossip about their inappropriate behaviours: divorced, neglecting their children, sleeping with married men… So when the flamboyant newcomer Daryll Van horn arrives, with his devilishly sinful ways, the witches jump on the opportunity to form a foursome, partaking in drugs, sex and partying.

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‘’We have children.’’ ‘’Poor neglected little scruffy things,’’ Jane said in a tone that indicated she was imitating another voice, a voice ‘’out there’’ raised in hostile gossip against them… ‘’Women must stop serving everybody and then getting even psychologically. That’s been our politics up to now.’’

The women continue to have fun, and their powers slowly disappear as they develop unnatural submission for the powerful Mr. Van horn.  The addition of a younger woman to their foursome causes jealousy amongst the witches, as well as misplaced passion and hate which reinforces their neglected coven. Their powers become stronger than ever now that they have joined forces against a common enemy, adding to that their firm belief in retaliation proves to be quite a deadly mix…

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the witches of eastwick book
Cover of The Witches of Eastwick book by John Updike. Art by Tole N art

Fantasy or Fail? A review

John Updike’s title The Witches of Eastwick book is quite misleading, on purpose probably, but disappointing to a reader expecting straight up fantasy. The writing style is slightly over the top, too detailed and full of sexual imagery which is randomly dispersed throughout the novel. The witches’ powers are so modest and inconsistent, that it takes away from the fantastic appeal of the novel. It often feels more like a domestic fiction, until a random act of witchcraft, such as one witch using her powers to win a friendly tennis match.

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When I stopped expecting fantasy, the book became more intriguing, as I challenged myself to decode the feminism and gender politics within the metaphors. Midway through the book, the story picks up and the plot twists are actually quite surprising. The novel should rather be read as a female empowerment manifesto with conditional supernatural powers. Margaret Atwood brought about some great analysis of the book in her review on Updike’s work, definitely worth checking out!

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 ‘’We were doing his will by, you know-‘’ … He couldn’t create, he had no powers of his own that way, all he could do was release what was already there in others. Even us: we had the coven before he came to town, and our powers such as they are…’’he wanted to be a woman…’’

Final Thoughts

This novel should not be classified as fantasy, but rather as a feminist fiction novel. The witches’ powers, the only fantastical element in Updike’s work, are a metaphor for their empowerment rather than simply supernatural. The movie version is definitely next on my list! It sounds absolutely fascinating according to critiques and the unbelievable cast: Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Jack Nicholson and Cher!

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7.5
Score

Pros

  • Great feminist fiction
  • Excellent retaliation

Cons

  • No fantasy
  • No grip factor
FANTASY
6.5/10
WRITING STYLE
7.5/10
ENTERTAINMENT
7.5/10
EMPOWERING
8/10

Final Verdict

There is no doubt that John Updike successfully demonstrated empowerment through the women in his work The Witches of Eastwick, but left his novel feeling unfinished, and the reader unsatisfied.