In anticipation of the upcoming release of Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman, I decided to read Practical Magic, the inspiration for the 1998 movie of the same title. While I, like so many others, adore the movie, I had never read the book. Although the cast of characters largely remains the same (the movie just forgets to mention a couple of them,) and the general story line is basically the same, the book is very different. It almost has a different “feel” to it, and as readers we receive more thorough portraits of each character that the film doesn’t necessarily offer.
In case you haven’t seen the movie (or already read the book,) Practical Magic is the story of the Owens women.
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 birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street.
The story pays particular attention to sets of sisters, Sally and Gillian who were raised by their eccentric, witchy Aunts, Frances and Jet, and Sally’s daughters, Antonia and Kylie. Although Sally and Gillian are inseparable following the deaths of their parents and throughout their childhood, they are still mutually scarred by their unconventional upbringing. The sisters go their separate ways once they reach adulthood, and each sister determines to lead a life without magic.
Gillian runs away and embarks upon a string of poorly planned and short-lived marriages. Sally stays with the Aunts for a few more years but soon falls in love with a man named Michael. She and Michael marry, move into the attic of the Aunts home, and have two daughters, Antonia and Kylie. Their life together is finally everything that Sally has always wanted, the story-book normal life that she spent her childhood yearning over. However, Michael’s days are numbered as a death-watch beetle is found on his favorite chair. The Aunts do everything in their power to stop it, but unfortunately there is no stopping fate. After Michael’s death, Sally is quiet for an entire year. Her life stops, the Aunts assume care for Kylie and Antonia, and not even phone calls from Gillian can convince her to break her silence. She even stops seeing color. After the entirety of one year passes, Sally finds her daughters in the park with the Aunts, observes how they being are treated by other children, and fends off a wayward swan. After this incident, Sally breaks her silence and decides to move away and begin again. She is determined to create a ‘normal’ life for her daughters in a town where no one blames the Owens women for every small misfortune.
Sally is successful in this endeavor. Unlike the movie version, she gets a job as a secretary for the high school’s vice principal and becomes a deeply trusted community member. Years pass in this fashion. Gillian going through relationship after relationship, living care free under the South Western sun, while Sally and her daughters experience the joy of a peaceful life. The year Kylie, Sally’ youngest, turns 13, Gillian turns up on Sally’s doorstep with her dead boyfriend, James Hawkins in tow. The sisters bury Jimmy in Sally’s back yard, and Sally’s lilac bushes mysteriously bloom over night. They grow tall, lush and fragrant, attracting women from all over town. They cause women in the town to remember their sorrows, the events in life that have broken their hearts. Meanwhile, Jimmy’s ghost wreaks havoc in Sally’s house. Causing fights between the sisters and general upheaval and disorder.
In the midst of all of this, Gillian finds true love in a high school science teacher, who performs magic shows for terminally ill children in his spare time. Sally finds it when investigator Gary Hallet shows up looking for Jimmy. Jimmy, who as it turns out had been selling drugs to college kids, causing their deaths. However, when it becomes apparent that Jimmy’s ghost will not relent, the sisters call on the only people who can help them banish a wayward spirit-the Aunts.
Lightning, like love, is never ruled by logic.
Although the movie focuses primarily on Sally and Gillian and the Aunts, the Aunts appear only in the beginning and the end of the novel. While the Aunts are probably my favorite part of the movie, and I was a little disappointed that they weren’t featured as prominently in the novel, Sally’s daughters play a more distinct role in the novel. The novel delves into the inner workings of Kylie and Antonia’s daily lives, and the intricacies of their relationship. Kylie and Antonia are very interesting, lovely characters, and their stories are compelling. The novel also offers a more intimate portrait of Gary Hallet, but there is no mention of his eyes being two different colors.
Overall, the novel offers a more fully dimensional portrait of the Owens women. It provides the reader with a detailed account of the life of Maria Owens, and presents a portrait of their family history and of the nuances of each of their personalities. Hoffman is an amazing writer, and the novel is written in a very close third person. Close enough to reveal the innermost thoughts of not only each of the Owens women but of Gary Hallet and Ben Frye (who does not appear in the movie.) I was expecting to like the novel, but I wasn’t expecting it to linger with me for days afterward. After I finished it, I couldn’t stop thinking about it and had the best kind of book hangover.
There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder. Keep rosemary by your garden gate. Add pepper to your mashed potatoes. Plant roses and lavender, for luck. Fall in love whenever you can.
If you enjoyed Practical Magic, you might also like The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe.