Petty Magic
by Camille DeAngelis
(Crown, $24, PG) ISBN 978-0-307-45423-2
The heroine of Petty Magic, Evelyn Harbringer, brings a whole new meaning to the phrase “cougar.” As a witch who is approaching the century and a half mark, her favorite pastime is to alter her physical appearance so she looks like a young, beautiful woman and then seduce some lucky young man for a lively one-night stand. The members of her coven, including two older sisters, look askance at Evelyn’s carousing, but given the realities that witch-mortal marriages almost always fail, and there are few male witches, they tolerate her lecherous behavior.

But when Evelyn meets Justin, a young man who is taking over management of the dusty old antique store in Evelyn’s New Jersey hometown, her love-them-and-leave-them days are over. Evelyn is convinced that Justin is the reincarnation of Jonah Rudolfsen, the man she loved and lost during World War II when she joined England’s Special Operations Executive espionage team (witches’ magical abilities make them both excellent nurses and spies). Despite the admonitions of her family and friends, Evelyn, in her altered youthful state, starts a relationship with Justin, determined to discover if he is indeed her beloved Jonah. But how long can she keep her real identity and age a secret from Justin, and who will be hurt most by her deception?

Petty Magic features one of the most distinctive first person voices I’ve encountered in many years. Evelyn is confident, courageous, seductive and self-centered – exactly how you would expect a 149 year old witch to sound. She is completely unapologetic about her past or present actions, even when facing the censure of her peers. In the flashback scenes that describe her wartime activities and romance with Jonah, her dedication to the witches’ beneficium pledge (“I shall spend the prime of my life in the service of humankind”) is clear, which helps the reader be less critical of the more narcissistic aspects of her personality. Her tone is snappy and witty but not callous. However, it is difficult to become completely engaged in either of her love affairs, especially the one with Justin. The attraction of a powerful witch to a dashing, heroic spy is easily understandable, but the lure of a 25 year old youth is a lot less plausible.

DeAngelis, in only her second novel, has created a fully realized world of rules and rituals for this particular version of witchcraft (Evelyn’s opening statement sharply disabuses the reader of the notion that witches ride broomsticks and wear pointed hats). She never takes her material too seriously, which makes for a light story but a shallow romance. Sometimes DeAngelis seems a little too much in love with her own ideas and forgets to move the plot forward, especially in the novel’s first 50 pages, and a murder mystery involving Evelyn’s sister and her first husband is somewhat awkwardly inserted in the midst of the Jonah/Justin romance, but the prose sparkles with vibrant energy throughout the book.

If you’re wondering how a romance between a 149 year old witch and a callow mortal can possibly end well, I’ll just report that the resolution is not unsatisfying, if you don’t mind employing a bit of patience and willingness to accept a broad definition of “happy ending.” Petty Magic will appeal to those readers who are looking for a well-written supernatural tale with a unique heroine. It’s definitely not a cookie cutter novel, but then neither is Miss Evelyn Harbringer.

--Susan Scribner

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