Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
(Berkley, $7.99, PG-13) ISBN 0-425-16846-8
*****
Alice Hoffman writes lyrical novels where the bizarre co-exists with the mundane. Her other novels are brilliant but often bleak or disturbing. Practical Magic, first published in 1995, is a romance lover's dream, however. This paperback version is being reissued to coincide with the upcoming release of a movie based on the book. I don't know anything about the movie, but I'm sure it can't approach the beauty of the novel.

"For more than two hundreds years," the novel begins, "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 birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street."

Sally and Gillian Owens are the youngest members of this notorious family. Orphaned at a young age, the two sisters are being raised by their elderly widowed Aunts, who may or may not be witches. Unlike most girls, Sally and Gillian have almost no supervision, discipline, or companionship. The Aunts are busy selling charms and potions to lovelorn women. The other schoolchildren either fear, taunt or avoid the girls.

From watching their Aunts, "Sally and Gillian learned things most children their age had not; that it was always wise to collect fingernail clippings that had once been the living tissue of your beloved, just in case he should take it into his head to stray; that a woman could want a man so much she might vomit in the kitchen sink or cry so fiercely blood would form in the corners of her eyes. On evenings when the orange moon was rising in the sky, and some woman was crying in their kitchen, Sally and Gillian would lock pinkies and vow never to be ruled by their passions."

The two girls react to this strange upbringing in different ways. Sally becomes overly responsible, the parent figure that both girls lack. Gillian becomes wild and careless, living for the day she can leave the Owens legacy behind. The sisters pursue different paths for years, but are reunited dramatically to deal with a major crisis. By then, three generations of Owens women must make their peace with their painful pasts.

Practical Magic is almost impossible to summarize, and I wouldn't want to give away any details of its bewitching plot. Suffice to say that both Gillian and Sally find love in unexpected ways that, contrary to their childhood fears, enrich rather than deplete them. In the meantime, the reader is treated to Alice Hoffman's unusual world, where sparrows in the house portend sorrow, and where ghosts haunt the living by causing constant bad luck. The surrealism of the novel is somewhat reminiscent of the cult television classic Twin Peaks, but the tone is much warmer and hopeful. Strange things happen, but in the end love is triumphant.

Frankly, I can't think of a better way to review this unusual novel than to include several direct quotations to give you a flavor of Alice Hoffman's unique voice. I plan to stay far away from the movie, because even if it is a decent adaptation, seeing it can't approach the special experience of reading the book. Practical Magic is magic, and a definite keeper.

--Susan Scribner


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