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Guest Post: Why I Will Never Finish The Witches of Eastwick

August 26, 2015

Cover image, The Witches of Eastwick by John Updike, photographed by Pamela Outwin

The following is a guest post from Pamela Outwin, a library school classmate, government documents whiz, and all-around good egg.

I’ve been working on this book for years.

I first obtained my current copy of John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwick – hardcover, second printing, a wee bit tatty – on a cloudy October day in Montreal, at a book sale at McGill University. I don’t even remember why I bought it, never having had any particular urge to read said novel before, nor anything else by that author. Once it came into my possession, however, it seemed like the Thing to Do, especially in October.

That was in 2004. So far, I’ve made it about 200 pages in. And that’s the furthest I’ve ever gotten.

This is not because it’s a bad book, or at all uninteresting. Indeed, it’s atmospheric in a way that truly speaks to me as a New Englander, haunting in the manner that all towns in my home region always are no matter how much spit and polish we put on for the tourists. There is always that smell of tidal salts underneath, a marshy decay, and the certainty that winter’s storms will batter and buffet away any summertime sense of civilization until all that’s left is the grey sand and the grey sea and the grey sky, and only native eyes can distinguish between the three elements.

I haven’t managed to finish The Witches of Eastwick because every time I get further than page 50, something massive happens and I have to drop everything like I’m escaping Hitler’s invasion of Poland. Three pages in? Massive university exam. Finish the first key plot point, around page 70? Get held at the Canadian Border for six hours for missing Quebec Residency permit, lose bookmark. Make it to the end of Part 1? Get into grad school, move 350 miles, ditch psycho roommate and find own digs. The list goes on, for better than a decade, and that’s when I can find the book on my shelves at all.

Each time I have to put it down, I lose my place, and the plot and story run from my mind like so much winter-cold sand through my fingers. Even when nothing is going on, the story will hit a point where it scares me so much that I have to stop reading for a while. It’s worse than Rebecca. Updike’s view of the women he writes is something I like, simply because it’s the antithesis of all the feminine-power affirmative literature that was so popular in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

These are not the magical women of The Mists of Avalon, or the mystics of The Red Tent. They’re victims, to be sure, but much of their unhappiness is the work of their own hands, and all the power that enriches them comes very much at the expense and pain of others. They are flawed. They are human. They are very often wicked. These women are not the starry-eyed sorceresses who are fonts of the Sacred Feminine, and they are certainly not role models. They are Witches, of the old kind, witches as every child in New England is taught to fear them. The brutalism of their personalities and behaviour as rendered by Updike’s prose is a gorgeous and horrible thing to behold. I’m not even totally sure what would happen if I managed to finish the book, know the entirety of the tale; some dark and foggy nights, I’m not even sure I should.

At the time of writing this, I’m 72 pages from the end, and just got offered a job 550 miles away that starts in less than a month. I’m going to try and finish it before I leave Maine. I’ll probably lose the bookmark when I move.

Pamela Outwin is currently in the process of moving to the D.C. area where she will spend her time in the Patent Office researching all the things. She fears only the Kraken, obscure Medieval book curses, and her lipstick colour being discontinued. She lurks around various parts of the internet under several pseudonyms, and can be found at LinkedIn.

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