by Alice Hoffman
From Goodreads: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”—Cosmopolitan
The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.
For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.
One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…
“Splendid…Practical Magic is one of [Hoffman’s] best novels, showing on every page her gift for touching ordinary life as if with a wand, to reveal how extraordinary life really is.”—Newsweek
The more of the Goodreads Monday tags I do, the more I’m grateful for having started doing them because they’re reminding me of some great books that have been languishing on my TBR list. The Glass Universe was like that, and so was Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. I’ve written before about how much I enjoyed the movie when I finally sat down and watched it (I still want to live in the Aunts’ house, or even just have their yarn winder). The book, of course, is different from the movie, but both are wonderful.
The basic plots are the same- Sally and Gillian are sisters who are raised by their Aunts Frances and Bridgett. They’re close as children but then grow apart. Sally, the dependable and dutiful sister stays home, falls in love with and marries a local man and has two daughters with him before he is struck and killed by a car. Gillian leaves town as soon as she’s eighteen and runs from one disastrous relationship to the next until events force her to return to her childhood home. One of the film’s biggest departures from the book is that Sally continues living with the Aunts in the movie. In the book, she moves away to build her own life with her girls, away (she thinks) from the witchy happenings in the old Owens household. Another major departure is that Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie, are little girls in the movie, and in the book you see them grow into teenagers.
Again, I think both book and movie are fantastic, and I can see why they director made the changes for the movie. The book, being a book, is better able to delve into complex issues of love and loss, the bonds of family, and why women might make the sorts of mistakes they do when love and infatuation are involved. There is a lot about growing up, too, and how strange and upsetting it can be to wake up one morning and realize that you’re not a little girl anymore.
“Trouble is just like love, after all; it comes in unannounced and takes over before you’ve had a chance to reconsider, or even to think.”
-Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic
Love is at the center of this book. The love that sisters share, lost love, a mother’s love for her children, and love that isn’t really love at all. What sets the book apart from the movie is the book’s ability to get into the heads of the characters to see what drives them and why they make the choices that they do. Gillian’s choice to stay with her abusive boyfriend, Jimmy, makes a sad kind of sense when seen from her point of view. She doesn’t believe she deserves happiness, and thinks she can change him. Sally’s grief at her husband’s early death drives her away from the Aunts and into something like a normal life, but you can see why she doesn’t really go and live her life. She’s consumed by the idea that her little world will fall apart without her and having that illusion shattered nearly undoes her.
Sally’s daughters, on the other hand, are only starting to learn about the world. Antonia is a selfish sixteen year-old who torments her little sister, but then has her world turned upside down when Kylie turns thirteen and starts to blossom. Kylie herself is baffled by this change, and it nearly wrecks the only real friendship she has. Everyone in the Owens household is, at one point or another, so focused on their envy, frustration, and misery that they can’t see the outside world and its effects on them. They, like real people, have a hard time swallowing their pride enough that they can talk to the people around them and work out the problems that are making them unhappy.
All of the characters in Practical Magic are beautifully drawn and complex. They have good points and flaws and they learn and grow throughout the book. Their relationships are such that the magic of the title is almost secondary to everything else, even though Hoffman scatters folk wisdom and magic throughout the story, whether it’s the Owens women’s beguiling beauty, their magical soap, or giant lilacs blooming out of season.
Hoffman’s writing is gorgeous, too, creating a believably magical world out of ordinary neighborhoods and revealing the issues the Owens women face without getting sentimental or dull about them. Their fear, misery, happiness, and love feels as real as if it’s happening to you, making Practical Magic impossible to put down. Almost like someone’s cast a spell over you.