“There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.”
― Alice Hoffman,
The Owens women from Practical Magic (film version) were a little definitive for me as a teen and young adult. Growing up in a Christian home (still a Christian), it may seem a little weird to some of my friends that I found a film about witchcraft to be so formative, but there it is. Essentially, it’s a contemporary (90s) fantasy/drama about two sisters, witches from a long line of witches, who rely on one another and ultimately set themselves free from a centuries-old curse. The curse? Any man they fall in love with will die. (There’s also a really evil boyfriend who gets killed, necromanced, and then killed for good.)
I fell in love with particular facets of the film: eccentric, maiden aunts in a Victorian house, chocolate cake for breakfast (and midnight margaritas) , a garden by the sea full of lavender and rosemary, the strong bond of sisterhood, potions in the form of lotion and shampoo (before EOs were cool), and notion of cursed love. For me, these wove a spell of mischief, whimsy and melancholy that my young INFP heart found undeniable. Despite the B-rating Rotten Tomatoes gives this movie, I don’t think I was alone in this. I know so many people who still love this film today, and I’d argue that it is possibly even a cult classic.
So, when I finally started reading Practical Magic a few years ago, I was initially a little disappointed. Sally and Gillian, the sisters, did not fulfill my expectations as characters. I actually preferred the film characters to their literary counterparts, which is an extremely unusual occurrence for me. Though Hoffman is one of my favorite authors (for reasons I’ll discuss later), I’ve got to be honest and admit that I have had this issue with her writing before. Somewhere between her third-person, omniscient point of view and her resistance to relying much on dialogue, I just have trouble connecting with her characters sometimes.
But by the time I finished reading Practical Magic, I decided that I actually loved the book. I just loved it in a different way than I expected.
“Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power.”
― Alice Hoffman,
Hoffman often writes in the genre of magical realism, and she nails it. She blends together the real world and elements of magic so completely that, as a reader, the whole thing becomes seamless. It is all real. It is all magic. Something that definitely helps with this is that one of her great strengths is her ability to craft a vivid setting that draws you into the world of her book. In the case of Practical Magic (and the prequel, The Rules of Magic), much of this hinges on the Owen’s family home, a place of intense magic on the otherwise ordinary Magnolia Street.
Even more so, Hoffman excels at crafting the world of her story around a theme. The way she does this, especially in conjunction with the genre of magical realism, gives the adult reader a special gift: a novel that speaks to the heart in a way that only a true fairy tale can–revealing truths dark and deep, bright and sparkling. As someone who devours fiction, this is what I love.
So when The Rules of Magic, long-awaited prequel to Practical Magic, came out last October, I had already pre-ordered it. Much more quickly than its sequel, I was hooked. I loved many of the same things about it as Practical Magic: the world-building, the fascinating omens, raw bits of wisdom, the whimsical tone. There were new things to draw me in, too. The setting of 1960s New York was fascinating, and I found myself much more engaged with the characters (younger versions of the aunts, and their brother, Vincent.) What I loved the most, though, was the way it took the pattern of themes that we find in Practical Magic and went deeper, simultaneously dissecting and expanding upon them. There are many kinds of love explored in this work and–at the center of it all–heartbreak and startling truth. Two truths especially spoke to me in both of these books.
- Love is a curse.
- The only way to survive the curse of love is to love more.
If you’ve lost someone that you love, you’ll recognize this “curse” and the way it plays out for the Owens sisters in their fantastical setting. You know what it is to lie awake at night and fear the inevitable: that this curse of love is one that you will meet again and again. There is nothing you can do to escape it. It is a fearful, heavy thought. It’s more than sadness. It’s horror, with a kind of guilt attached that requires no logic. It’s something that not everyone understands–until they experience loss for themselves. However, it is a club that we will all join. At some point, we all realize that it’s a curse we will have to live with.
“I’m fated to lose everyone I ever love,” April said. “I already know that.” “Of course you are,” Jet responded in her calm, measured tone. “That’s what it means to be alive.”
― Alice Hoffman,
It is tempting to reach the same conclusion that the characters in Practical Magic/The Rules of Magic do, at various times in the the narrative: don’t love at all, and the curse will be irrelevant.
However, as Hoffman explores in this duo of grown-up fairy tales, to attempt to resist love totally is to truly fall under the power of the curse (in addition to being just plain impossible). Yes, the curse of love is real, but the only way to break free of the curse it to continue to choose love, over and over again.
“Know that the only remedy for love is to love more.”
― Alice Hoffman,
It’s a hard lesson to explain, one of those things you don’t get until you feel it. One of the reasons I love fiction is that it allows us to feel and understand things as though we’ve experienced them. It creates empathy with others and helps us to understand ourselves more deeply, too.
Don’t take my word for it though, I’d much rather you experience this particular truth-bomb in fiction form. Read it. I’d say read them both, but if you have to pick one, I’d go with The Rules of Magic.
I will give a disclaimer here for my friends who know and trust me as a Christian reader/writer: there are a lot of things in these books, beyond the practice of magic, that you may be uncomfortable with. There is definitely a good bit of language, sexual content, and some plain old morally objectionable stuff. I definitely don’t recommend these for kids/teens, and I’d also caution my adult reader friends who avoid this type of content. Personally, these sorts of things don’t really stop me from reading books if I feel that the books have substantial redemptive literary/moral value (which I do in this case.) I realize, though, that I have many loved ones who feel differently, and that’s okay too.
I’m not going to give much more away here. It’s been awhile since I’ve read both of these books, which is part of the reason I decided to not do a book review. I honestly meant to write one after I’d finished The Rules of Magic, but it impacted me so much that I felt unable to write about it until later. By that point, the details had begun to blur, so I let it go. But then I had to come back to it, because autumn is coming and you need to add Practical Magic/Rules of Magic to your autumn reading list. Alice Hoffman is a magical writer, not just because she writes about magic sometimes, but because she entertains us with magic while delivering an elixir of truth. What more could you want in a autumn read?
“when you truly love someone and they love you in return, you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse, it’s what life is, my girl. We all come to ruin, we turn to dust, but whom we love is the thing that lasts.”
― Alice Hoffman,