“It was an ending and a beginning, for the month itself was like a gate. October began as a golden hour and ended with Samhain, the day when the worlds of the living and the dead opened to each other. There was no choice but to walk through the gate of time. Franny had already packed up her suitcase and carried the Grimoire with her. The book, and all it contained, was now theirs.”
—The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Alice Hoffman’s first novel, Property of, was a cult classic: in this dreamy novel, an unnamed narrator describes her doomed love for the leader of a street gang. Since her debut in 1977, Hoffman has written 30 novels, three collections of short stories, and eight Y.A. and children’s books. I have always been a fan of her poetic style, wild fairy-tale-ish take on life, and delicate use of magic realism.
Witch stories are appropriate in October, and Hoffman’s beguiling new novel, The Rules of Magic, traces the struggles of the modern Owens family against their heritage as witches. Billed as a prequel to Hoffman’s 1995 novel, Practical Magic, it can be read as a standalone. And indeed it was so long ago that I read Practical Magic that I consider it a sequel to The Rules of Magic.
The lyrical narrative of The Rules of Magic, set mostly in the 1960s, grows out of an intricate plot. There is a dark curse on the descendants of Maria Owens, who was charged as witch in Massachusetts in 1620 (and who, in her diary, warned her descendants against love). The curse means the Owenses cannot love without inadvertently hurting their lovers. Three hundred years later, Susanna Owens of New York believes she has beaten the curse by marrying a man she likes but doesn’t love. She denies her three children, Franny, Jet, and Vincent, their heritage of witchcraft, and does not even allow them to read about magic.
During a summer in Massachusetts with their Aunt Isabelle, who embraces witchcraft and herbal remedies, they begin to learn about their family and are at last allowed to read magic books. Birds fly to Franny of their own volition. A crow becomes her familiar. Two boys fall in love with beautiful Jet, a fan of Emily Dickinson, and kill themselves over unrequited love . You can imagine the effect on this poetic girl, who escapes into reading. As for the youngest sibling, Vincent, he studies spells from a Grimoire and makes mischief: he proudly casts a spell that scares finches away. Franny is unimpressed: she points out that a cat can scare finches without magic.
It is a landmark summer, but back in New York the Owens’ lives become more complicated. Dare they fall in love? Dare they practice magic? They all have the sight, and are anxious. Franny is in love with a childhood friend, but refuses to let him get too close. Jet conducts a dangerous romance: in Massachusetts , shortly before she left, she fell in love with Levi Willard, the son of a very conservative minister, who forbids Levi to see her, and who has continued a centuries-old feud with the Oweneses. And even Vincent, who becomes an alcoholic, finally finds his way out of a drunken haze to fall in love with a man. But there are obstacles in every path of love, and one tragedy is so poignant I’m still haunted.
The characters are so vivid, and real, and sad, and the pace is so fast that I flew through the book. How would they manage their lives? Would they beat the curse?
Hoffman’s exquisite writing is a gift to readers. Here is a passage about Franny’s study of her aunt’s herbal remedies for customers.
Franny had taken to sitting on the back staircase to eavesdrop. 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 Rules of Magic is entertaining and poignant, and now I want to go on to Practical Magic. If you haven’t read the book, you may have seen the movie with Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. I only vaguely remember it, but I look forward to rereading.