The novelist Lionel Shriver recently argued that the major failure of fiction has been the lack of elderly protagonists: female writers in particular, she suggested, have shied away from portraying old ladies. As if in answer to her urgings, John Updike has put three such women at the centre of his latest novel.
They first appeared in The Witches of Eastwick (1984), set in the Sixties in a pretty Rhode Island coastal town. The trio were seduced by the devil in the form of Darryl Van Horne, and they dabbled in black magic, causing the death of Jenny, their friend until Van Horne chose her as his bride, by maliciously casting a spell inducing cancer. It seems likely that the novel inspired or at least influenced Desperate Housewives, another New England saga in which wanton women sometimes bond and sometimes betray one another; witchcraft is absent from the TV series, but the unsisterly behaviour regularly extends to murder.
The witches eventually left Eastwick after conjuring up their ideal men as husbands. Almost forty years on, the husbands are all dead and the coven reconvenes. Alexandra, ‘the broadest in body, and the nearest in character to normal, generous-spirited humanity’, runs a pottery shop in New Mexico; spiky Jane is