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John Updike the novelist is casting a spell again.

"The Widows of Eastwick" might just be his best novel since 1990's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Rabbit at Rest."

"Widows" is a follow-up to 1984's "The Witches of Eastwick," one of the better books Updike published in the Reagan decade.

We last saw Alexandra, Jane and Sukie, the three "witches," in early middle age, able to cast spells in a supernatural sense (perhaps) and certainly capable of bewitching the men of the fictional town of Eastwick, R.I.

"The Witches of Eastwick" was set in the 1960s, the height of the sexual revolution. Thus, the inevitable conflicted reading of this text: Were these really witches, or were we to conclude that the real reason they were outcasts in their small-town milieu had everything to do with their refusal to respect other women's marriages?

Near the end of the previous novel, the three witches, betrayed by their devilish shared lover used their power to draw new husbands for themselves.

But even sorceresses, it seems, must grow older and confront the decline of their powers - whether rooted in spell-casting or mere seduction.

"Widows of Eastwick" could have displayed a decidedly downbeat feel, and yet it doesn't seem at all burdensome. Alexandra has moved to New Mexico; as the novel opens, we find her man has died. In turn, Jane and then Sukie enter widowhood.

The coven is reunited. And the witches go sightseeing.

You can almost hear Updike chortling during this section of the book. With their men gone and no new ones yet on the horizon, the witches surely aren't exulting in the lusty sex lives they once did. But their travels evince a pent-up hunger that will be sated later in other ways.

The witches, it seems, have unfinished business back in Eastwick. And, so, to Eastwick they return, and, as they did so many years ago, they bring unrest.

With its fiery energy and wicked humor, "Widows of Eastwick" is a truly enjoyable book to read, and one suspects it was an immensely satisfying novel to write.

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