The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman: a Book Review

The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman is a novel about love, the ties of family, loss, identity and fate. This novel powerfully conjures the condition of the human heart with all of its’ joy, longing, and agony. The three Owens children, Franny, Jet, and Vincent, are on a journey to discover who they are. Along the way they un-earth a few family secrets and cover up a few of their own. The Rules of Magic is a powerful, heart-breaking novel that renders a dazzling portrait of the Owens family and their spellbinding traditions.

Readers were first introduced to Franny and Jet as the Aunts in Hoffman’s Practical Magic. This time around we learn that they were originally a trio, and that the sisters had a much beloved younger brother named Vincent. We also meet their parents, Susannah Owens, who is reminiscent of our beloved Sally who so desperately craves a normal life, and goes to great lengths to keep her children from learning of their heritage.

Once upon a time, before the whole world changed, it was possible to run away from home, disguise who you were, and fit into polite society. The children’s mother had done exactly that.

Her husband, psychiatrist Dr. Burke-Owens, is a kind-hearted do-gooder who sees most of his patients for free. Susannah has laid out the rules for her children, no walking in the moonlight,  no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets,  no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, and no venturing below Fourteenth street among other things. Yet, invariably the children break each of her rules one by one. They are determined to break free from Susannah’s strangle hold and forge their own identities.

In the summer of her seventeenth year, Franny Owens receives a letter from her Aunt Isabelle, who lives in a small Massachusetts town where their ancestors have lived for generations. Although the invitation is addressed to Franny, all three Owens children pack their bags and catch the next bus out of town. The siblings spend the summer with their Aunt, learning about their heritage, reading the journal of their ancestor, Maria Owens, and discovering who they are. Each is offered a glimpse of their fate, and each is warned to always stay true to who they are. During this fateful summer, the siblings also meet their cousin April Owens, and for the first time they learn of the curse that has followed their family for generations. That any man who dares to love an Owens woman, does so at his own peril. Something that Franny and Jet unfortunately learn, is true.

Before the summer is over, Jet encounters her true love, Levi Willard. Who, as it turns out is a distant relative and the descendant of John Hathorne, notorious Salem witch trial judge. As it would turn out, their love is not to be and Jet loses Levi and both of her parents in one fell swoop. After the deaths of their parents, Franny assumes responsibility of Jet and Vincent. She is forced to stay home with her siblings rather than go to college with Haylin, her own true love. In order to protect him from the curse, she breaks off their relationship and his life goes on without her.

The siblings then move to 44 Greenwich avenue, where they begin to untangle their lives. The sisters make a living by opening a shop below their apartment, where they sell a variety of tinctures, tonics, teas, and charms. Vincent contributes in his own way, by dabbling in darker magic for profit. Jet’s grief spans decades, Franny encounters Haylin, who has moved on with his life time and again, and Vincent comes to peace with a fundamental part of his identity. Through it all, the novel is punctuated by heart break, loss, and tragedy.

The story of the Owens women, whether in Practical Magic or The Rules of Magic, is always captivating. Hoffman has created a dazzling, memorable, and lovable set of characters. However, I did notice a difference in the style of Practical Magic, and The Rules of Magic. To be honest, I liked the prose in Practical Magic a tad bit better. Hoffman seems to get bogged down with the idea of creating a fairy tale and over uses the word “for” as a conjunction. I’m not sure if this would bother anyone else, or if it just sticks out to me personally, but I thought if felt contrived and a little bit forced. I also felt that it was very obvious that there are more than 20 years between the publication of the two novels. Practical Magic is beautiful, uncomplicated literature written before writers made it their purpose to infuse all works with their ideals, or moral inclinations. Before it was a requirement that entertainment must also be used as a conveyance for instilling ones’ morals upon their audience. In other words, Practical Magic was written without an agenda, and it was all the better for it. The Rules of Magic seemed to have an overt agenda, and frankly, I find adult literature with overt moral messages to be tedious, even though in this case I whole-heartedly agree with the sentiment the author is trying to convey. It often makes me feel condescended to as a reader/viewer, like the author/film maker is assuming that their audience, and by extension me personally, isn’t evolved or discerning enough to form their own thoughts or opinions. However, while I was annoyed by both of the two things I mentioned above, I still largely enjoyed the novel. I was still teary-eyed during multiple parts, and I was absolutely thrilled to revisit the Owens women. I was still deeply touched by the novel, and I loved getting to know Vincent, April and Aunt Isabelle.

All the same, there were some things they needed to learn. Do not drink milk after a thunderstorm, for it will certainly be sour. Always leave out seed for the birds when the first snow falls. Wash your hair with rosemary. Drink lavender tea when you cannot sleep. Know that the only remedy for love is to love more.

If you like The Rules of Magic, you should of course read Practical Magic. If you like the themes of fate, and love, and if you’re feeling really ambitious, you might enjoy The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

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Author: Lee Ann Fryman

Lee Ann is a poet, fiction writer, and blogger located in Lexington, Kentucky. She received an MA in English from Northern Kentucky University, and has BAs in Theatre and English from Morehead State University.

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