I had read only one of Alice Hoffman's novels before this one: At Risk, published in the early 1980s. It is about a young girl who becomes infected with HIV by way of a transfusion, and the suffering and ostracism she and her family suffer as a result. It was sad and touching but a bit too topical for my tastes. I noticed, however, that Hoffman continued to receive excellent reviews for her subsequent novels, and inwardly vowed to give her another chance. Along came Practical Magic, which, based on the cover art, I bought without hesitation: it is a detail from Dante Gabriel Rosetti's Proserpine, complete with dripping pomegranate. I'm a sucker for books with pre-Raphaelite paintings reproduced on the dust jackets (Possession, A Natural History of the Senses, The Chymical Wedding, et al.); call me Libra. Besides, this one was about witches. I was sold. I didn't even try to get a review copy, something which is relatively easy for me to do, because I couldn't wait. I plunked down my own hard-earned cash.
It was perhaps the best $22.95 I have ever spent on a contemporary novel. It is the story of Sally and Gillian. Orphaned as little girls, the two sisters are sent to live with their spinster aunts. Because the aunts dabble in herbcraft and love potions, because their garden grows greener than anyone's in town, because the twelve different kinds of wood paneling in their parlor never need polishing, there is gossip. Sally and Gillian are teased and shunned at school, never getting invited to birthday parties, never being chosen for dodgeball. They sit silent on the steps, watching their neighbors come and go in search of herbs from the aunts' garden that will bring them love, money, revenge. The "w" word follows them wherever they go. Once they reach adolescence, however, their outsider status becomes an odd source of attraction. Gillian becomes a raving beauty who literally stops traffic when she crosses the street. Eager at all costs to be free of the aunts, Gillian elopes at eighteen, leaving Sally behind to iron the linens and weed the garden.
As Gillian leaps from man to man, touching down in every small town and big city west of the Mississippi, Sally, still in Massachusetts, also beautiful, marries the manager of the local hardware store. She and her husband live in the attic apartment in the aunts' huge Victorian house. After her husband's death in a car accident, Sally becomes severely depressed. But her daughters, Antonia and Kylie, soon become her sole reason for living. When Sally notices, however, that children have begun to behave badly toward her own daughters, in the same way they did when she and Gillian were in school, she realizes that her goal of having a "normal" life will never be realized while she remains connected to the aunts. She moves to New York State, and becomes a devoted and protective mother.
Predictably, Antonia and Kylie are a handful; as teenagers, Antonia is gorgeous, vain, and spoiled. Kylie, three years younger, is smart, gangly, and awkward. But where Antonia is merely selfish, Kylie is empathic. Her psychic abilities are such that she sees, hears, and feels things all around her: auras, ghosts, the emotions and dreams of others. She and Antonia love the elderly aunts ferociously, and can't understand why they only visit Massachusetts once a year, or why Aunt Gillian never comes to visit, despite promises to the contrary over the last eighteen years.
When Gillian finally comes to visit Sally after the mysterious death of her most recent lover, strange things happen. The lilac bushes in the backyard won't stop blooming, even into July. A frog enters the kitchen with a silver ring in its mouth. Gillian is pursued by the man of her dreams, and can only keep him at arm's length. Kylie keeps seeing a man in the backyard, under the lilacs, and gets headaches from inadvertently tapping into others' dreams. Antonia feels old at seventeen. Gillian and Sally live with a terrible fear that the police will come knocking at the door, and are at each other's throats. A torrential storm threatens to expose a terrible secret...to say more would give too much away.
But when the elderly aunts pay an emergency visit, all is well again. Gillian reconciles with the aunts, who never stopped loving her; she also gets married, for what she knows will be the last time. Sally falls in love for the second time in her life. And the girls begin to understand the profound magic and mystery of the aunts, beyond the gossip and the rumors.
Hoffman's writing is a revelation, elegant, sensual, and evocative. She has created here a world full of physical joys: the heady perfume of herb gardens, the myriad colors of the sky, the heat of lovemaking, the electricity of magic, the heart-stopping fear of the unknown. This is a story of love and death; of family ties and friendship; of sex and transformation. It is also a story of fate, of accepting what we cannot change, and of embracing those things that come to us unexpectedly. Even as Sally and Gillian swear never to become one of "those women," the lovelorn who sought out the aunts' spells and charms, they still find themselves overpowered by passion. Although they try to rid themselves of the aunts' influence, they find they are irrevocably tied to them, by the genetics of intuitive powers, and by the things, once witnessed, that they cannot unlearn.
Proserpine and her pomegranate on the cover seem an ideal expression of this novel's world view: that which brings us sensual delight (the sweet, ripe fruit) can in turn lead us to the Underworld, a place of dormancy and death. Like Proserpine, Sally, Gillian, Antonia, and Kylie often live in a kind of limbo, waiting for love, waiting for adulthood, grieving for what has been lost, hoping to be reborn into a life free of spells, magic, and gossip. But the aunts show them that all is as it should be; you cannot escape your past, any more than you can ignore true love. And I suppose that Hoffman's novel is, first and foremost, a love story. But it is also an inspiration for those of us who have chosen a magical path; it affirms that path, even as it chronicles its hardships.
Reviewed by Peg Aloi
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