22 February 2010

Practical Magic (Annotation 4)

Practical Magic... written by Alice Hoffman... published by Berkley... 1995.

I almost don't even know where to begin. For a book that's around the 300 page length, this seemed so much larger! ...and I mean that in the best possible way. Despite the fact that the story has a fairly intimate setting, it is nearly epic! The story itself is sprawled out over about 35 years, although there is also a bit of digging even further into the past. So much happens just in the first section of the book that I felt like I had already read an entire novel! I was a bit surprised at how much I enjoyed this book. Hoffman is masterful with her prose, and draws the reader in from the first few pages. Had I not been too tired, I would have stayed up all night reading this book! As it was, I read the story over three (it's a magic number) days... which, on the other hand, I was just fine with... I was really in no hurry for the story to end. It occurs to me that I'll have to look for a sequel... I sort of doubt it's out there, but I'll look... either way, I am interested in reading more from Alice Hoffman.

The story is all about the Owens women, a matrilineal family in which all girls are given the Owens name regardless of the father's name. The story begins with two young girls, Sally and Gillian, who have gone to live with their aunts after the death of the girls' parents. The girls are given much freedom as they are growing up (no bedtime, eating candy for breakfast). They also (secretly) pay very close attention to the behavior of their aunts. All of the Owens women have had to deal with ridicule and alienation in the town in which they live, but despite that, almost all the women in town have gone to visit the aunts at one time or another. The aunts help women gain their desires (mostly love) through magic... not the "abra-cadabra" kind of magic, but real earth-based magic. The girls have grown up watching this, and are both intrigued and appalled by what they see.

The story unfolds with the girls growing up. Gillian is the prettier, more popular sister, but she still ends up with her share of troubles. Sally is identified well by her hair... she is the darker, more sullen sister; and she always tries to be the stable one, while Gillian is more of the "wild-child." By the time she turns 18, Gillian has had enough of her aunts and dealing with what it means to be an Owens woman in the Massachusetts town. She leaves, goes west, and vows to never go east of the Mississippi again! Sally stays behind with the aunts. Sally eventually meets a man, who has the approval of the aunts, and has two daughters of her own, Antonia and Kylie.

The story then moves even further, with Sally's girls growing up. It finally settles in a time when Antonia and Kylie are 16 and 13; this is when the rest of the story takes place. Breaking her vow, Gillian shows up at Sally's house with a "problem." Sally decides that it's best if they just bury the problem, and move on with their lives. This is exactly what they do, and Gillian stays on with Sally and her girls. Much time is then spent on the younger girls, showing some parallels to Gillian and Sally themselves (this is a story about family as much as it is about love).

Gillian eventually does find the love she needs, or rather he finds her. Ben Frye, a local high school teacher. He just sees her one day in the yard and falls in love with her. It sounds cheesy, but Hoffman makes it work. Men are not always put in the best light in this book, but they are not always portrayed as "wicked" either. Hoffman actually does something very cool with Ben Frye. Sure, he may seem somewhat pathetic in his utter devotion to Gillian (while she continues to refuse him), but at the same time, Hoffman gives him an air of magic while he is courting Gillian. In point of fact, Ben is an illusionist in addition to being a teacher (he entertains children in the hospital, for example). Finally, Gillian allows herself to give in to her feelings, and Ben calls it "fate."

Throughout this part of the story, Antonia and Kylie have their own share of problems. In the end it is the problem of Gillian's that she and Sally buried some weeks ago that comes to the surface. The aunts have to be called in to help them with this one. Gillian hasn't seen them in 18 years, and is unsure how they will be toward her. They accept her, of course, and help her out of the hole that she dug. ...and things have a way of working out in the end...

Like I said, the story is spread out over a long period of time, and a lot happens. I have intentionally left out a lot of smaller plot-lines so as not to spoil it all for any potential readers. There is a movie based on this book, of the same name, but I have not seen it so I can not comment on how well it follows the story set out here. It seems to me that it would be difficult for the film to follow it completely, because it is such a large story (it would really take about a season of television to do it justice). I would certainly suggest this story to anyone looking for a good family drama, with a large helping of the so-called "magical realism" in the mix. When I say "family drama," I don't mean that it is a "family friendly" type of story, but rather this is a story that examines the intricacies of a family... particularly one that is based around the women of the family. Even though this may be labeled as part of the "Women's Lives and Relationships" genre, I would still recommend it to anyone (yes, you too, men) who is willing to try something a bit different from the norm.

As a final note, I would also like to comment on the writing style. Hoffman has a beautiful, natural, and lyrical way of writing, which made for a very pleasant read. Interestingly, the book was not really divided into chapters, as I would have expected, although it was divided into four sections. Often there weren't any breaks in those sections. One sub-plot flowed into another, into another, and sometimes back again or into another. This was definitely different from what I normally read. It reminded me of something that was said in a Feminism & Theatre class I took as an undergraduate student: "Men have waffles for brains, and women have spaghetti." ...and it's kind of true (this was also stated in the class)... men have these little compartments in which they keep information, and then they just go and get what they need. Women, on the otherhand, have everything in one big pile of information... one thing flows into another, and into another, into another... maybe back again, and into another. Again, this is not mine to say... it was discussed in the class. This way of thinking was explored in some of the plays that we read, and I also noticed it here in this most excellent novel!


  1. I'm glad to see you liked this book. A lot of people don't like to read books about people who are different from themselves (different genders, races, nationalities or sexuality) but I think it helps us to understand other people a lot better.

    I enjoyed the movie version of the book, and after reading this I would definitely like to give the book a try.

  2. I loved both the movie and the book ... particularly the twists! I applaud your choice!

  3. It is clear that you connected with this work through your reflection on your reading experience. You respected the art, the thinking, and the affect inherent in the work. Makes me think - you could create a thought-provoking reading list "Books written by Women that transcend Gender" This list could be used by - book discussion groups in public libraries that wish to attract men but still keep their mainstay happy - women. Or it could be used by a men's book discussion group that wants to occasionally read fiction written by women. Something to think about.