The Widows of Eastwick, By John Updike

A slow sequel that fails to cast a spell
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While the "Rabbit" sequence is John Updike's most significant literary achievement, and 1968's Couples made the cover of Time magazine, The Witches of Eastwick (1984) remains his only novel to have made a significant and lasting impact on popular culture.

Adapted into a film in 1987, starring Cher, Susan Sarandon and Michelle Pfeiffer as the witches and Jack Nicholson as Darryl Van Horne, the devilish man they summon, it was subsequently a stage musical and, in 2002, the basis for a TV pilot featuring Marcia Cross, the actress who was to join a in some ways similar group in Desperate Housewives. In conversation with an ex-lover in this book, Sukie describes her earlier self as "desperate", making the link explicit.

Given that in Updike's previous novel, Terrorist, he used a thriller plot and achieved a cultural impact that he has not had in some time, it seems that here he's attempting to extend this relevance by returning to well-known characters for a belated sequel. But for all its mainstream acceptance, The Witches of Eastwick is a dark and unusual book.

It may have annoyed some critics (Martin Amis compared it to "horseshit"), who saw it as beneath the author's talents, but it has an occult power completely in keeping with its subject. While the film was an over- the-top pantomime, there are some genuinely troubling scenes in the novel, such as the witches' jealous decision to kill Darryl's young lover Jenny with cancer, or the way they provoke a newspaper editor into killing his wife with a poker before hanging himself. For all its moments of comedy, the laughs die in your throat.

The sequel, The Widows of Eastwick, begins with Alexandra still troubled by her evil actions in the first book (described here as "vile mischief"), and searching, in her dreams, for "a tinfoil egg of death, whose discovery would reverse Jenny's death".

The husband she created (after Van Horne failed to become the man that the three women had hoped for) from a hollowed pumpkin, a cowboy hat, and a pinch of soil scraped from the back fender of a pickup truck, has died, as have the husbands that Sukie and Jane created for themselves. The three women have had minimal contact, coming together now from their respective homes in Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Mexico. Disturbed by their consciences, they have felt uneasy in one another's company.

By page 50, Alexandra and Jane have reunited and set off for Egypt; by page 78 they have enlisted Sukie and set off for Japan. Updike is in no hurry to kick his plot into motion, and although his prose is notably less elegant than usual, he doesn't skimp on description as his widows cope with their grief through travel and conversation.

A third of the novel has gone before the widows even reach Eastwick. It is 200 pages before they decide to use magic again, and even then it is only to make up for the sins of their past and protect one of their number from illness. The death of one of them reveals the novel's antagonist, Jenny's brother (and Van Horne's ex-lover) Christopher, a man determined to see the witches pay for what they have done.

Updike's attempt to depict the ageing process from a female perspective is admirable, but The Widows of Eastwick is a drag. As with all bad sequels, it does very little to advance the plot of the original, relying for its drama on the events of the first book.

While "Witches" was ebullient and exciting, "Widows" is portentous and dull. There is some pleasure in Updike's final twist, which is both outrageous and ridiculous. Having spent much of the book talking about how sex for these women is largely in the past, Updike manages to combine anal sex, facial cum-shots and strap-on dildos into a single scene, as if rewarding himself for getting so far without resorting to his trademark explicitness. But by this point nothing can save the book, which, as a fan of Updike's genre work, it pains me to say is his very worst: an unnecessary sequel which betrays an upsetting diminution of his once-formidable talents.

Matt Thorne's latest novel is 'Cherry' (Phoenix)