Nov 8, 2008

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

As this novel’s famous opening paragraph goes,
"For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red mark stamped onto his check, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was –lightening, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, or science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame."
Sally and Gillian Owens are very young when they go live with their aunts on the house on Magnolia Street after their parents die. Very soon, everyone in the small Massachusetts town fears them and casts them aside, just like they’ve done with every other Owens woman before them. Sally and Gillian grow up, and they become as different as they are close. Impetuous Gillian leaves town when she turns eighteen and vows never to cone back. Sally stays with the aunts, but after her attempt to lead a normal life ends in tragedy, she too leaves Magnolia Street to move to New York, where she tries to start a new life with her daughters Antonia and Kylie.

There were many things I loved about Practical Magic. I loved Alice Hoffman’s writing. I loved the fairy tale atmosphere, and the way she blurs the line between fantasy and reality. I loved the way the relationships between the Owens women were portrayed. Despite all their differences, Sally and Gillian remain close, and the fact that they truly care about each other always shows.

Then there’s Antonia and Kyle’s affection for the Aunts, and the fact that, very interestingly, we only learn their names towards the end of the book. I liked how we got to see them under a different light when they go to New York to help Sally and Gillian. We are finally given an idea of what it must have been like for them to wake up with the telephone ringing one night and be told they were going to have to have to raise two little girls. At that point in the story they cease to be two examples of the strange-old-lady-who-just-might-be-a-witch stereotype to become two real people with distinct personalities.

Unfortunately, there were also a few things about this novel that I didn’t really like. First of all, there was a small thing that bugged me: the story is told in the present tense, and for some reason this distracted me. This is something Trish had mentioned about Alice Hoffman before, if I’m not mistaken, but I hadn’t noticed it in her other books. This time I did, and even though I’d get used to it after a while, if I put the book aside for a while it would bug me again once I picked it back up.

Secondly, and more importantly, there are quite a few love stories in Practical Magic, and for the most part they struck me as being on the superficial side. They were a little too based on the concepts like fate and love at first sight for my taste. I prefer love stories in which people actually get to know each other and make a conscious choice to be together, rather than being fated to do so. And I realize that love at first sight is common enough in fairy tales, but this wasn’t enough of a fairy tale for me to just shrug it off. And anyway, my favourite fairy tale novels tend to be exactly the ones that subvert that stereotype.

There was actually a marked contrast between the way romantic relationships are portrayed in this novel and the solid ties between women in the Owens family. I realize that this was probably part of what Hoffman was going for, but I wonder if we really need that contrast, because it’s not like the two things are mutually exclusive.

If you were to ask me if Practical Magic is worth reading, my answer would still be a definitive yes. But this is actually my least favourite of the Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read so far. It’s well written, charming and very engaging, but unlike The Ice Queen and Green Angel, it didn’t wow me. If this had been my first Hoffman book, I probably wouldn’t have found myself thinking that she could very well become a favourite author of mine. As it is, I still think she could, provided that the rest of her books are more along the lines of The Ice Queen than of Practical Magic.

Other Blog Reviews:
Fuzzy Cricket
Musings of a Bookish Kitten
The Bookworm
Just One More Chapter
Mari Reads
Everyday Reads
Life and Times of a 'New' New Yorker

(Let me know if I missed yours.)


  1. I enjoyed this book. I admit, I don't remember the use of the present tense but I do agree about the relationships. However, as you said, I think the focus is more on the relationship between the sisters.

    here is a link to my review:

  2. I'll read the Ice Queen first and then head over to this one. The Ice Queen is one of my most anticipated reads on the TBR shelf right now. After all of the great reviews of it, I know I'll love it. This sounds promising too though!

  3. This is one of my films, though the film version is very different from the book.
    Great review! I love Alice Hoffmans writing too. That's an interesting point you make, I never took much notice of this one being told in the present tense.

    The Ice Queen is one of my favorite novels, thats the first Hoffman book I read and what made me pick up Practial Magic.

  4. Mari: the present tense thing is something I bet I'll end up forgetting about too, but as I was reading the book it bugged me. And I really loved the relationship between the sisters, but I have the feeling that by making the romances so shallow Hoffman weakened her point rather than strengthening it, you know? Thanks for the link!

    Chris: I really can't wait to see what you think of The Ice Queen. I do have the feeling you'll love it. And you'd probably enjoy this one too :)

    Naida: It's good that you didn't notice it, because those things are meant to be invisible :P It was exactly the fact that I couldn't help but notice it that bothered me. And yes, I was reading a plot summary of the movie yesterday and it sounds like a whole other story!

  5. I still have never read this book. But I really enjoyed the movie. Surprisingly, too, since I can't stand Nicole Kidman. But she played Gillian, and was probably my favorite character, next to the aunts!!

    Nice review!

  6. I love this book and it's movie, I think it's the only Hoffman book I've ever read though.

  7. I read this one quite a while ago but I did like it-I too don't remember it being told in the present tense as you descirbe. I don't know that it was my favorite either-I really liked The Probable Future and more recently I read The Third Angel and really liked it. I'll be anxiously waiting for her next novel. I'm a fan.

  8. Stephanie: I really didn't imagine Gillian like Nicole Kidman, or Sally like Sandra Bullock! But yes, they are great characters. I've heard that the aunts play a larger role in the movie, so I'm curious about that.

    Ladythink: ooh, you have to read The Ice Queen then!

    Dar: Despite not having enjoyed this one as much as her others, I am definitely a fan too! I have a couple more of her novels waiting for me on the shelf and I look forward to getting to them.

  9. Isn't this a movie? lol It's sad that I don't automatically know that. Anyway, I'm pretty sure it is and I had no clue the book existed. I will have to check it out. I'm so glad you posted about this because I'd also like to read some of Hoffman's other books because I've never read any of hers!

  10. I read this a long time ago, pre-blog, so I have no review for it. I used to read a lot of Hoffman, and I agree that this isn't one of her stronger works.

  11. Great review! I have to say I still am going to read this one because I've fallen in love with Alice Hoffman but I can see how this might be the least favorite. You should check out The River King. I LOVED that one.

  12. Hello Nymeth! Lovely review as always. I however consider this book as my favorite Hoffman so far :)

    Here's the link to my review:

  13. Good review! It made me want to look for her other books. I enjoyed Practical Magic very much, but it didn't get me searching for Hoffman's other books.

    Practical Magic is the first and last Hoffman I've read; which of her other books do you think I should try next?

  14. Amanda: It is, but I haven't watched it yet. And it's not sad, normally I'm the last one to know those things too :P

    Dewey: I think my next one will be Blue Diary. I mooched it some time ago and it's just calling me from the shelf.

    Amanda: I really do think it's still worth reading! And I've heard such great things about The River King. I look forward to getting to that one.

    Lightheaded: Thanks for the link! You know, I was sure I remembered you reviewing it, and I even did a google reader search on your blog alone, but the stupid thing didn't find it >:(

    Marineko: This is only my third Hoffman so I'm by no means an expert, but I completely fell in love with The Ice Queen when I read it earlier this year. So I'd recommend that one!

  15. This *is* my first Hoffman novel. While I enjoyed it, it didn't linger for me and I haven't been motivated to pick up any of her other books. It's good to know that her other work is more engaging. I'll have to try The Ice Queen. Thanks for the recommendation!

    The present tense in Practical Magic threw me for the first chapter. The switch was a bit abrupt and I can never really sink into present tense and lose myself in it. I just tend to skim the surface of the story.

  16. Fuzzycricket, I hope you enjoy The Ice Queen! And yes, that's exactly what happened to me...the use of the present tense kept pulling me out of the story. I really can't say why it happened, but it did.

  17. I never noticed the present tense thing... This is my favorite Alice Hoffman book. Maybe it's because it's the first one I read and I was enchanted. The 'love at first sight' thing was probably an important factor in my loving it. :-) Even though her books are not fairy tales, they have that fairy-like feel to them and for me fate and destiny belonged there. I'm a sucker for stuff like that sometimes. :-)

  18. Joanna: I'm glad you enjoyed this one :) I definitely can see how those things could add to the book's charm, and I didn't mean to say they were "bad" or anything...just that they don't normally work for me :P But despite that, I do love the fairy tale feel of her books!

  19. I'm so glad I read your review of this book because it was the first Hoffman book I read (long time ago) and just didn't connect with it. Which of course meant that I never really pursued another of her books. I know she has a newish one out and that one sounded interesting but I haven't gotten to it. Anyway, just glad to hear that you think there are definitely other of her books that are better. I will have to look for some of those instead!

  20. I haven't read this one. I did some part of the movie, which was pretty good. I'm actually just starting The Ice Queen by Hoffman, which will be my first book of hers. I'm anxious to see how I like it. What other books of hers have you read?

  21. Loved your review, but then that goes without saying by now, huh? I've yet to read anything by her, but have been really anxious to. I have a few, but will probably start with Green Angel since it should be such a quick read. Of course, your review of The Ice Queen made it sounds sooooo good, too...

  22. Great, balanced review! I've only read one Hoffman book, Skylight Confessions, which was okay. I don't think I could read this book, having already seen the movie. I know people say the book is different and better, but I usually can't bring myself to read the book after watching the movie.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  23. Iliana, I hope you like the one you pick up next better!

    Lisa, other than this I read The Ice Queen and Green Angel. The Ice Queen was the first and I completely fell in love with it. Can't wait to see what you think!

    Debi: Both are quick reads, actually, and I think either one would be a great starting point!

    Anna: I actually don't think I've heard of Sklylight Confessions. And yes, if given the choice I always try to read the book first too.

  24. I am really looking forward to reading this next year, but I will bear your comments in mind. I really like the film and the other books I have read by her and can't believe I still haven't read the novel.

  25. Thanks for the honesty, Nymeth. It was really interesting reading this review after just finishing The Ice Queen and I'm thinking this won't be my next choice. I really loved the movie but it sounds like this one is perhaps a little more like Here On Earth--the book that I first read and didn't like as much. And the present tense thing! I don't know what that bothers me so much because it is a subtle thing but it just doesn't feel right to me.

    I'm sorry this one didn't do it for you--what's next on the list?

  26. I liked this book, but I think Blackbird House is still my favorite. It seems like Hoffman's most mature book.

  27. Rhinoa, I do think you'll enjoy it!

    Trish: I don't know why it bothers me either, but it really does! It keeps pulling me out of the story. I can't help it. Anyway, I have two more Hoffman books waiting on my shelf: The Blue Diary and Turtle Moon. Hopefully I'll get to them before long.

    Andi, I'll keep that one in mind!

  28. This is actually one of my favourites of Hoffman's books! I read it quite a few years ago so maybe it's time for a reread in light of all her other books??
    I also enjoyed Blackbird House, and found Here on Earth fascinating for the modern take on Wuthering Heights (I've always found Heathcliff terrifying, as his doppelganger character in Here on Earth seems to be)


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.