Review: Practical Magic

Written by Alice Hoffman
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995, 244 pp.

Alice Hoffman begins her novel Practical Magic by telling us that “For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town,” and then she proceeds to show us why.

The book is the story of two sisters, Sally and Gillian Owens, “only thirteen months apart in age.” Sally, the older of the two, is dark-haired, level-headed and practical. Gillian is blond, self-indulgent and dangerously beautiful (“Boys looked at her and got so dizzy they had to be rushed to the emergency room for a hit of oxygen or a pint of new blood.”). Sally and Gillian are orphans, raised by their two aged aunts – Aunt Frances and Aunt Jet (short for Bridget) – in a world of charms, spells and magic powers.

Each of the girls, for her own reasons, longs to escape this bizarre existence. And eventually they do. Sally marries, has two daughters of her own, and is widowed. She gets a job as assistant to the vice-principal of a high school, and goes about fulfilling “her personal heart’s desire” – “being like everyone else.” Gillian runs away, marries several times, works as a waitress, and constantly gets involved with men who are all wrong for her – one of them very wrong, indeed. Many years later, the sisters and their aunts are reunited after a weird and disastrous accident causes Gillian to call on Sally for help.

This basic synopsis makes the novel sound much more straightforward and commonplace than it is. Hoffman writes in a style that some have called “Yankee Magic Realism,” and the story of the Owens women is touched, over and over, with magic. Lilacs bloom out of season in a lush profusion that causes women to stand weeping on the sidewalks beneath the bushes. A deathwatch beetle found beside someone’s chair is an inescapable prediction of doom. A toad shows up on a windowsill and spits out a silver ring.

And men fall helplessly in love with the Owens women, often at first sight and frequently to their own detriment. When Aunt Jet was sixteen, two local boys committed suicide over her: “One tied iron bars to his ankles and drowned himself in a quarry. The other was done in on the train tracks outside of town by the 10:02 to Boston.” It’s a trait the ladies have passed on to their nieces.

I hadn’t read any of Hoffman’s books before I read Practical Magic, and I haven’t seen the movie that was based on it. So I came to the novel with no real preconceptions or expectations, and was pleasantly surprised. Sort of a gothic romp, it’s a little like a screwball comedy directed by Alfred Hitchcock – a darkly humorous tale featuring the most average-American-type witches I’ve ever come across. It’s probably not everyone’s cup of chamomile, but I loved it and I’ll definitely be reading more Alice Hoffman in the future.

This review is included in the 11th edition of Bookworms Carnival.

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