Book review – Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

I hardly know where to start in reviewing Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman. I fell in love with it straight away and it is now firmly in my top twenty favourite novels of all time! I have to confess that I love books with magic realism and Practical Magic has it in spades. I was blown away by the depth of understanding Alice Hoffman shows, in human nature, folk magic and all things love. The whole novel is almost a ‘how to’ manual for growing up and falling in love.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town.’

The opening sentence immediately suggests this is a story about witches. Of course, the wise women and healers had always been blamed when things went wrong for hundreds of years. It was part of folk superstition. It was the basis of the witch hunts and patriarchal domination of women. So it seems from the outset the women of this story have some ‘magical’ ability – enough to be the subject of the town’s suspicions.

Once a year, on midsummer’s eve, a sparrow would find its way into the Owens house.’

Midsummer’s eve is the time around the summer solstice. Evil spirits were said to wander during the summer solstice. It also marked the beginning of the end as days become progressively shorter. The sparrow itself is a bringer of luck, good and bad. In Greek mythology the sparrow was a symbol of love – fitting for this novel – while in English folk lore a sparrow flying into the home meant a foretelling of death. There is plenty of love and death in this novel so I’m guessing that Alice Hoffman used the sparrow to convey both meanings.

‘Crossed knives set out on the dinner table means there’s bound to be a quarrel, but so do two sisters living under the same roof, particularly when one of them is Antonia Owens.’

Alice Hoffman is brilliant in her understanding of teenage girls. Their capriciousness, self-doubt, half girl, half woman – she captures it all. One moment I found myself falling in love with these characters, the next I could see too much of myself reflected back. Sisters have a special bond, but growing up so closely with someone that is probably going through much the same emotional experiences, possibly just not at the same time, is a recipe for conflict in any house. But it is almost a universal truth that sisters love each other in a way that no two other people can. This is not the fairy tale of never ending love we are fed on as children. This is a love forged in shared experiences. This is a key theme throughout this novel. Although the story is about romantic love everything that happens revolves around the three pairs of Owens sisters, each at different stages of life.

‘On the morning of Kylie Owens’s thirteenth birthday, the sky is endlessly sweet and blue, but long before the sun rises, before alarm clocks go off, Kylie is already awake.’

The innocence of turning thirteen – reflected in the sweet and blue sky – is contrasted with the awakening of womanhood inside. Kylie knows something is different now that she is a teenager. She doesn’t know what it is yet. Is it her? Is it the way the world now sees her? Or is it some combination of the two? There is a magic about being thirteen. A time when you don’t even know who you are yet but there are so many demands placed on a young girl. Parents’ expectations, school teachers… boys!

‘All of the teenage boys down at the Hamburger Shack say, ‘No onions,’ when Gillian takes their orders.’

All of the teenage boys (and later the men) in this novel are obsessed with the Owens sisters. The sort of obsession that makes teenage boys forget what they were about to do. They forget where they were going or what they were about to say. They forget everything because one glimpse of one of the Owens sisters is enough to turn any teenage boy weak at the knees. In this way Alice Hoffman reduces teenage boys and men to gibbering idiots. There are very few men that are worthy of the Owens sisters (and by implication, very few men that are worthwhile, period!). I think in a way she is making fun of popular notions of romantic love and concepts like love at first sight. I see it as a warning to women not to be suckered in by flowers and gifts and words of love because there is something much deeper out there waiting for you. She does this by setting the novel in a world of magic realism that makes us question common conventions of what love is.

‘If a woman is in trouble she should always wear blue for protection.’

Blue is a symbol of many things in folk mythology, including protection. So why does Alice Hoffman think women need protection? Is it from men? Other women? Themselves? Maybe she means it as a symbol of protection against all of those things that drive a woman to be something other than who she is meant to be. This is another example of the magical realism that persists throughout this novel. The notion that we are surrounded by magic if we only know to look for it. The book is loaded with these superstitious beliefs, interwoven throughout the story so they seem like truths.

‘Two hundred years ago, people believed that a hot and steamy July meant a cold and miserable winter.’

Sally is practical and sensible. She spends most of her life trying not to believe the folk myths surrounding her aunts. She denies that anything happening in nature is a portent of something about to happen in her life. But all the while, Sally (and the reader) is drawn inexorably toward her own destiny. When we finally reach this point it seems as though it were always inevitable. I think Alice Hoffman is suggesting that we all have our passions and no matter how much we deny them we cannot avoid our own true natures.

‘Always keep mint on your windowsill in August, to ensure that buzzing flies will stay outside, where they belong.’

The use of mint has a long history dating back to early human civilisations. Historians have suggested mint was brought to England by the Romans. Regardless of its historical origins, it is little wonder mint has a place in folk magic because its strong smell would have suggested mystical powers. The use of mint in the context of Practical Magic suggests that we ignore such folk myths at our own peril. Do you dare not put mint on your windowsill? I know I will.

‘On the eighth day of the eighth month, the aunts arrive on a Greyhound bus.’

In a novel about independence, among other things, Alice Hoffman only gives a sketch of the aunts in the early chapters before turning her attention to the sisters, Sally and Gillian. We get to know them intimately, inside and out. We learn their innermost fears. We learn their secret desires. But overarching all of this is the example set by the aunts while the two girls were young. It is no coincidence that the aunts come back toward the end of the book when they are needed the most. It suggests that we can never run away from our past or our heritage. And ultimately it is this heritage that Sally and Gillian reclaim as they come to terms with themselves and ultimately discover the love they always longed for.

‘On the outskirts of the city the fields have turned red and the trees are all twisted and black.’

Magic realist novels had their origins in Latin and South America before spreading to other parts of the world. In case you couldn’t tell already I absolutely love reading magic realist novels and Practical Magic is no exception. The only way to judge a book is how it makes you feel when you’re reading it. So much of this novel spoke directly to my heart and made me laugh and cry and cry and laugh throughout. Now I’m going to have to watch the movie starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman (which I’ve never done) and Alice Hoffman’s latest novel The Rules of Magic is high on my wish list!

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