Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman


My friend Molly recommended a book by Alice Hoffman she was reading and as a result I read this one, based on NYT reviews and a quick look in the library at several choices. Though I've read some books characterized by magical realism (Murray Bail's Eucalyptus comes to mind), this one leans heavily toward the magical rather than the realism side. Hoffman is a good storyteller and captures you effectively. It's a fun read.

At the outset we meet two magic-working aunts and I immediately thought of the movie Cary Grant was in, Arsenic and Old Lace, though these aunts were not murderous. They take in two orphaned nieces who watch the aunts dispensing magic potions with trepidation. There's a cautionary tale of a young woman who comes to the aunts for help capturing the love of an older married man and quickly comes to regret his undying love. He didn't just fall in love, he became obsessed.

Life with the aunts is not easy for the kids. The Owens women have been witches for generations and the children are avoided or picked on by kids in school and the adults in town. When the beautiful Gillian is old enough, she escapes to a series of unfortunate choices of men and moves across the country. Sally falls in love close to home with a fine man who has the misfortune of dying young. Sally takes off with her daughters in hopes of raising them in a witch-free household. Given the genetics, that doesn't work out.

The story of the two sisters, the careful hardworking Sally and the beautiful and wild Gillian, how they leave the aunts, go their separate ways, and eventually reconnect is the subject of this book. Along the way there's a dead body buried in Sally's backyard that causes lilac bushes to grow very large and bloom into July, there's a 12 year old girl child who blossoms into a teenage beauty on her 13th birthday, and there are several occurrences of love at first sight. Ultimately the aunts are called in and rescue the sisters again.

Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic, Putnam, 1995, 244 pages. Available at the UVa and public libraries and from Amazon.

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