Practical Magic: The superior book behind the cult film

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsPractical Magic by Alice Hoffman science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsPractical Magic by Alice Hoffman

Like most people, I became aware of Alice Hoffman‘s 1995 novel Practical Magic through the nineties film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It’s not a great movie, but it has a charm of its own, and it led me to the original story upon which it’s based. It’s striking to see the differences and similarities between the two.

The film leans more heavily on its magical elements, even becoming something of a supernatural thriller at some points, whereas the book is more interested in the three generations of Owens women and their lives, whether it be the tragedy of the aunts, the love stories of Gillian and Sally, or the coming-of-age rites of Antonia and Kylie.

As children, Sally and Gillian Owens were ostracized from their New England community due to the persistent rumour that they and their extended family were witches. Once they reach adulthood, they can’t wait to leave home. Gillian ends up going through a revolving door of boyfriends, while Sally settles down and has two children of her own.

But years later, after Sally has been widowed and Gillian has escaped an abusive relationship, the two sisters find each other again. Gillian desperately needs help, and arrives on her sister’s doorstep with the dead body of her boyfriend Jimmy in the backseat of the car. The two bury him in the backyard, but eventually the law — and an unquiet spirit — comes knocking…

This scenario was the crux of the 1999 movie, but the novel is about so much more. Practical Magic delves more deeply into the psyche of the two sisters, and explores how their relationship mirrors the one between Sally’s daughters Antonia and Kylie, who initially fight like cats and dogs before finding more common ground after a frightening experience.

There’s also more emphasis on Gillian’s love affair with a local school teacher, and for anyone that’s ever wondered what happened to the woman at the beginning of the film who comes to the aunts for a love spell to ensnare a married man — well, you’ll get her whole story here.

Hoffman writes in lovely prose, and (unlike the film) the magical elements are much more subtle. Often they’re whimsical and/or eerie, like the cats that follow Sally to school one day, or the lilac bush with the intoxicating smell that grows over Jimmy’s makeshift grave.

Other times Practical Magic can err on the side of the ridiculous — like the boys who get struck by lightning in their bid to impress Gillian: “their hair forever standing on end, their eyes open wide from that time onward, even while they slept.” Um, okay. You’d think an event that devastating would be explored in a little more detail, but it’s just thrown in there casually.

The romances aren’t all that deep either, and most of the time they seem to revolve around magically-heightened hormones. The book is strongest when it’s focusing on the relationships between the three generations of Owens women, which make it a fun, mysterious read.

Published in 1995. The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Rules of Magic and The World That We Knew. For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape. One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back — almost as if by magic…

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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2 comments

  1. I actually quite liked the instances of understatement, such as the example with the boys struck by lightning; I think it gives Alice Hoffman’s fluid and dainty writing style a bit of a humorous edge, I say about a novel containing dead bodies in car boots… As far as I recall, the two boys’ tale is elaborated upon in the 2017 prequel to Practical Magic – The Rules of Magic. I was eager to read the latter and dive into the story of the two aunts, but I was left somehow disillusioned. I’m curious to see what your thought of it, if you’ve read or are planning to read it. And thank you for a wonderful review, I feel like picking up the novel again!

  2. Rebecca Fisher /

    My review for the prequel is forthcoming, and I was actually interested in seeing how Hoffman would handle the boys getting struck by lightning, but she doesn’t add anything more to their stories.

    I guess I just felt terribly sorry for them both, and in the fifteen year gap between reading this for the first time and then reading the republication, I never forgot them.

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