Practical Magic by 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…”

I’ve had this book on my radar for a while, since I enjoyed the movie and was curious to see how the events played out in the book.  The further I got into my reading, the more I realized that the movie took significant liberties with the novel’s plot (something that may be it’s own blog post in the near future); not only that, but the message of the story was quite different on film.  And honestly, I found–as I often do–that I liked the book better.

Don’t get me wrong, the movie does have its charms, but I found the novel to have so much depth and richness that the movie can’t help but suffer by comparison.  So, let’s get on with the review.

One of the things that struck me early on was the author’s use of dialogue… or, more specifically, the lack thereof.  Conversations are sparing in this story, with Hoffman choosing to let the tale unfold in the setting, the characters’ thoughts and actions, and in sensual details.  I use the word “sensual” here to indicate descriptions of details that appeal to the senses, such as scent and the quality of light in various scenes.  It lends the prose a lyrical quality, as the flow of the narrative isn’t constantly broken up with conversations.  I found that I was able to really sink into the story in a way that inclusion of dialogue wouldn’t facilitate.

To me, one of the most intriguing things about this novel was the way it dealt with magic.  I tagged this book as “magical realism” because the author is very careful to walk the line between having out-and-out magic happen and having it only be suggested.  For example, Sally’s daughter Kylie takes on the emotions of others that she encounters, so she could be an empath… or she could simply be an extremely sensitive person.  Granted, there are odd happenings in the town and in the lives of the characters, but I think it’s really left to the reader to decide if they think that what’s going on is supernatural or not–or at least, how much is supernatural and how much might be explained away by other means.  This is in direct contrast to the movie, where magic is used openly by all the characters at one point or another.

My greatest enjoyment in reading this book came from the depth of the characters and their relationships.  I felt that this novel had less to do with magic or with family as it does with the legacies of our families, if that makes sense as a distinction.  Hoffman shows the similarities and contrasts between the characters over and over again, drawing parallels with earlier women in the Owens family and their experiences with life and love.  The author shows how you can be both ensnared by those that came before as well as strengthened by them.  You may not always be aware of what you’ve taken from your family’s shared past, but eventually, you’ll realize what you’ve been given and how to incorporate it into your own life.  It’s a lovely message, not skimping on the fact that not everything you get may be positive, but it’s all there for you to deal with–or not–as you choose.

My one complaint about this book is that there’s a lot made at the start of the novel about the “curse” on the Owens women, that they’ll be unlucky in love (meaning that the men in their lives will die young and violently).  After the novel’s first section, though, that whole storyline seems to vanish for the majority of the book.  It doesn’t quite go away completely, but the emphasis it gets at the beginning isn’t held up through the rest of the story.  I think that a little more to prop up that bit of plotline would have gone a long way towards making the novel a truly cohesive whole.  As it is, it certainly doesn’t ruin the book to have that bit of plot thread left loose in the weaving, but I would have liked to see how it would have been integrated into the rest of the novel.

And now, having read this, I can go on to the just-released prequel, The Rules of Magic!  I would heartily recommend this book for a good Halloween read that isn’t scary and isn’t going to keep you awake at night, but instead will weave an atmospheric spell that’s a perfect complement to our cooling weather and fading daylight hours.

This book was a personal purchase.

(Description nicked from

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.