Just like many other women who grew up in the 90s, I loved the movie Practical Magic, in which fresh-faced Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman played two rebel witch sisters. I had no idea, at the time, that the movie was based on a novel by Alice Hoffman, written in 1995.
My first encounter with Alice Hoffman’s writing was actually by reading two of her other novels. First Faithful, which I really ended up not liking and decided to skip reviewing. And then The Marriage Of Opposites for a book club, which was better than Faithful but still felt slow and repetitive to me. Both novels had elements of magical realism, but definitely not to the level of the Practical Magic series.
Based on my lackluster prior experiences with Hoffman’s writing, I wasn’t sure if I’d like The Rules of Magic as much as I loved the movie based on its sequel. Maybe it was the familiarity of the story and settings, or that I actually do need more magic from Hoffman to enjoy her writing, but I definitely ended up enjoying it. Find out why below.
The Rules Of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Publication Date: October 10th 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Plot Teaser (from Goodreads)
For the Owens family, love is a curse that began in 1620, when Maria Owens was charged with witchery for loving the wrong man. Hundreds of years later, in New York City at the cusp of the sixties, when the whole world is about to change, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique. Difficult Franny, with skin as pale as milk and blood red hair, shy and beautiful Jet, who can read other people’s thoughts, and charismatic Vincent, who began looking for trouble on the day he could walk.
When her children visit their Aunt Isabelle, in the small Massachusetts town where the Owens family has been blamed for everything that has ever gone wrong, they uncover family secrets and begin to understand the truth of who they are. Back in New York City each begins a risky journey as they try to escape the family curse. The Owens children cannot escape love even if they try, just as they cannot escape the pains of the human heart. The two beautiful sisters will grow up to be the revered, and sometimes feared, aunts in Practical Magic, while Vincent, their beloved brother, will leave an unexpected legacy.
What I Liked
The writing. I have to say I somewhat appreciated Hoffman’s writing already in Faithful and The Marriage Of Opposites. There’s a lyrical tone to it and it really draws you in with how poetic is sounds in your mind (or if you read it out loud). In Faithful and The Marriage Of Opposites, however, I felt that the repetitiveness of the narrative took away from the beauty of the writing. Not so for The Rules of Magic which was transporting and melodic, almost like having a parent improvise a magical story for you at bedtime. That’s ultimately what The Rules of Magic felt like – a legend or fable from days gone by about witches and wizards, love and despair, fate and curses. There’s was a simplicity to Hoffman’s words that didn’t make the writing feel overwrought, and it was the combination of purity and enchantment that made me yearn to get back to the book when real life got in the way of my reading.
The magical lore. This was probably my favorite part of the book. I was just captivated by any passage in the narrative that had to do with the mythology and customs of magic itself. Hoffman includes stories from the lore of the magical world about spirits and omens, as well as lots of practical descriptions of the use of different plants for magical purposes, spells to draw love near or send it away, and the most propitious times of day or of the year to conduct specific charms. Maybe it’s my OCD, but I loved any description of systematic mixing of ingredients, storing of herbs and flowers in apothecary jars infinitely lined on shelves, and tending to neatly planted rows of plants waiting to be put to their magical uses. Hoffman was able to ground the magical realism in the book by bringing it into daily aspects of life, as in the passage below.
“She’d bought a blue notebook in the pharmacy to write down her aunt’s remedies. Star tulip to understand dreams, bee balm for a restful sleep, black mustard seed to repel nightmares, remedies that used essential oils of almond or apricot or myrrh from thorn trees in the desert. Two eggs, which must never be eaten, set under a bed to clean a tainted atmosphere. Vinegar as a cleansing bath. Garlic, salt, and rosemary, the ancient spell to cast away evil.”
The history and settings. This was a more unexpected part of the novel for me. I knew it was a prequel to Practical Magic, but never having read Hoffman’s earlier novel, I wasn’t sure exactly when the story would start and end. Since The Rules of Magic is the story of the entire lives of the two aunts who end up raising the two sisters in Practical Magic, the story in The Rules of Magic actually spans several decades. I loved reading about the experiences of Jet, Franny and Vincent in a different epoch, dealing with the clothing, historical events and mindsets of the time. Hoffman really also has a gift for painting beautiful sketches of the settings in which she places her characters. From a New York of changing seasons and mysterious streets to a quaint town in Massachusetts and the mystical house inhabited by Aunt Isabelle.
“The most glorious hour in Manhattan was when twilight fell in sheets across the Great Lawn. Bands of blue turned darker by the moment as the last of the pale light filtered through the boughs of cherry trees and black locusts. In October, the meadows turned gold; the vines were twists of yellow and red.”
What I Didn’t Like
The one-note love curse plot device. It’s weird because I didn’t really find the love curse plot of the movie annoying in Practical Magic, but it’s probably somewhat of a different experience to watch an hour and 20 minute movie on the topic than reading a nearly 400 page book on it. Hoffman hits the love curse story heavily from the beginning in The Rules of Magic, and at first it’s engaging. The reader is invested in the main characters’ romantic relationships, whether actually doomed or not, and suffers or rejoices alongside them. By halfway through the novel, however, I was over hearing Franny’s inner monologues about whether she should or shouldn’t take action, based on the supposed curse. I wish the plot of the novel had not been solely so love focused, and that the characters could have had more varied aspirations and interests.
Enchanting novel that will transport you to a different place and time, steeped in magical lore, in which you’ll watch two novice witches grow up learning about love and family.
About The Author (from her website)
Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952 and grew up on Long Island. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux.
Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become a distinguished novelist. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools.
Her most recent novels have received many accolades, and are New York Times bestsellers. They include The Museum of Extraordinary Things, The Marriage of Opposites, and Faithful. Her newest novel, The Rules of Magic, is the prequel to her cult-classic Practical Magic. It was selected as a LibraryReads and IndieNext List Pick for October 2017 and is one of the Most Anticipated Books on iTunes.
Have you read The Rules Of Magic? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
You can also read my other recent Just Read reviews, including for political memoir What Happened by Hillary Clinton, the audiobook of contemporary fiction title Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman, biography Diana: Her True Story – In Her Own Words by Andrew Morton, political memoir Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? by Alyssa Mastromonaco, audiobook of historical fiction novel Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and historical crime mystery Death Of A Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel.
Thank you to the publisher and Net Galley for providing a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Please note this post contains affiliate links from Book Depository.