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Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
5
Book Name: Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman
Publisher(s): Putnam
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / Ebook
Genre(s): Magical Realism
Release Date: June 13, 1995 (US) June 1, 1995 (UK)

I first discovered magical realism in twelfth grade, when my English teacher assigned us to read One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was a wonderful book – and still is – but I wasn’t quite sure how to define it. It was definitely historical, even if I couldn’t quite figure out exactly where in history it belonged (though that only enhanced the mystery for seventeen-year-old me). It was definitely fantasy, with its plagues of insomnia and a girl who was carried away into the sky by a sudden gust of wind. But there was something more to it, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I knew what fantasy was: fantasy was my mom’s copy of The Wheel of Time and the Dragonlance books I’d “liberated” from my uncle’s basement. Even when my teacher defined magical realism for us, the definition didn’t feel quite right, and I think now I understand why.

The trouble is that all definitions of magical realism I’ve found have placed it in the bounds of literary fiction. While there’s nothing wrong with literary fiction (and I would hope fans of literary fiction would be willing to say the same for fantasy), tossing magical realism in with it can make it far too easy to ignore one of the fundamental truths of the genre: magic is real. While the books are still essentially set in our world, metaphor is as strong a force as gravity. (Sometimes it is even stronger.)

A corollary to that truth is that you can’t be skeptical about the magic if you’re writing magical realism. You have to embrace it, to make it firmly a part of your world. This is the trap I’ve seen many American writers fall into when writing something that looks like it’s trying to be magical realism. The authors really are trying, but they can’t get past their grounding in reality. When the girl was carried away in One Hundred Years of Solitude, no one questioned it or tried to figure out exactly how it had happened. It simply happened.

Very recently, however, I found an example of American magical realism that works: Practical Magic.

I have to admit, at first I was a little skeptical. It’s a good book – I could tell that from the start – but it just didn’t feel like fantasy. While I may have expanded from the prophecies and quests of the high fantasy of my childhood, even in a quest for magical realism, I still find I expect my fantasy to have a certain feel to it, and Practical Magic lacked that feel. I was ready for disappointment, certain I’d stumbled across yet another literary work with pretensions of expanding into a predominantly Latin American genre. It would be watered down and hesitant, and to someone who flung herself in Garcia Marquez, it wouldn’t do.

But then the aunts’ love spells began to work, and I knew I found what I’d been looking for.

Let me back up a little bit.

Everyone knows the Owens family are witches, and they certainly are rather odd. The women all keep their maiden name and pass it on to their daughters (and there do seem to only be daughters in the line). Sally and Gillian Owens are being raised by their aunts, and at first it seems pretty much like an ideal childhood. The aunts practically let the girls get away with murder and are more concerned for Sally than Gillian. Gillian gets to run wild and do as she pleases, and her aunts are perfectly content with that. They’re more worried about Sally, who does all her chores and makes sure to get to bed on time. As far as the aunts are concerned, it isn’t healthy for girls to be good little angels.

It isn’t exactly healthy for girls to grow up in a house of witches, either. The aunts sell love spells to the women of the town, and every so often the girls sneak down to watch. They see women of all sorts weeping over lost loves and loves they shouldn’t have found in the first place, but the one that sticks out to them the most is a girl who works at the drugstore. She has fallen in love with a married man, and the aunts give her a series of spells to win his heart and convince him to leave his wife and marry her. The spells work, and while that was enough to win me over to the book, what shakes the girls is just how well they work. The man is devoted to his new wife, so much so that he doesn’t give her a moment’s solitude. Watching her descend from a lovelorn teen into a broken woman is chilling, and it’s part of the reason the girls are so determined to have lives without magic.

And they do try. Gillian runs off with a boy shortly after finishing high school, and Sally marries the most ordinary man she can find. The aunts approve of neither of these choices, but what can they do? They have to let their girls live their own lives, or at least try to.

The trouble is that magic isn’t just sticking pins in a dove’s heart or knowing what herbs to plant to bring in good luck. It’s a man’s shirt cuffs burning because he’s so hot with love and it’s lilacs growing so high they can touch the telephone wires. It’s in the blood of each Owens girl, for good or bad, and it’s there to stay. In time, it will call them back to each other. You can’t escape the ties of family, especially not when that family may (or may not) be a group of witches.

Whether you’ve encountered magical realism before or are only just discovering the genre, I can assure you that this will be a book well worth reading. It’s at a perfect junction between fantasy and literary fiction, and an excellent change of pace from both.

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One Comment

  1. Thena says:

    “A corollary to that truth is that you can’t be skeptical about the magic if you’re writing magical realism. You have to embrace it, to make it firmly a part of your world.”

    This is so true! I’m glad to hear that Practical Magic has been able to walk that fine line well. It’s not something that’s done well nearly enough. The fact that it had you doubting the magic adds to the realism because you get that shock when the fantastical starts to actually happen in the real world.

    “The trouble is that magic isn’t just sticking pins in a dove’s heart or knowing what herbs to plant to bring in good luck. It’s a man’s shirt cuffs burning because he’s so hot with love and it’s lilacs growing so high they can touch the telephone wires. It’s in the blood of each Owens girl, for good or bad, and it’s there to stay. ”

    I love this. Once again, that’s the realism of the magic coming into play and that is so important in this genre. The fact that the genre can be so hit and miss makes the ones that really “get” it stick out. I’m ordering this one as we speak. I’m also looking forward to a book coming out by Alexandra Casavant. It sounds like something you might enjoy as well. It’s called The Voiceless Voice and deals with the intrinsic powers of communication, language, etc. and how they play out in settings with both fantastical and real elements.

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