Alice Hoffman's Rules of Magic Surpasses Original


THE RULES OF MAGIC (October 2017)
Alice Hoffman
Simon and Shuster, 384 pages
★★★★ ½

When it comes to cultural repetition, sequels get most of the bad press though, truth be told, prequels are far more likely to be awful. Do you know anyone who prefers any of the awful Star Wars prequels to the original? Did you ever hear anyone say they liked Go Set a Watchman more than To Kill a Mockingbird? Have you even met anyone who has read Scarlet or Before Green Gables? One of the many things that makes Alice Hoffman's The Rules of Magic a joyful read is that the prequel to her beloved Practical Magic is by far the superior novel. That's no dig at the original; Hoffman was a good writer back in 1995, but she's even better now.

The Rules of Magic takes the Owens family back two generations—to the childhood and young adulthood of Frances (Franny") and Bridgett ("Jet"), the eccentric aunts who will later raise Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic. In many ways, the two novels are the same story, though Franny and Jet grow up in New York City, not in a Massachusetts town a stone's throw from Salem. Fear not, they will make their way to that crooked Gothic house on Magnolia Street with its garden of herbal delights. There is no escaping the legacy of witchcraft surrounding Owens girls. Or, in this case, Owens children, as Susanna Owens and her husband, psychologist James Burke-Owens, also have a son, Vincent. Try as they will, these children cannot be what their peers consider normal. Franny is taller than most children, has blood red hair, loves Emily Dickinson poems, and possesses animal attraction in both senses of the word.  She is the serious and pragmatic counter to her beautiful, reticent, kind, raven-haired, thought-reading sister Jet, and their reckless, lazy, musically gifted, conjuring younger brother Vincent. (For me, Vincent evokes a young Jim Morrison.) Susanna desperately wants a conventional life for her children and lays down the book's namesake rules: "No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no amulets, no night-blooming flowers, no reading novels about magic, no cats, no crows, and no venturing below Fourteenth Street." And there's another: Don't fall in love. Affection bonds are doomed because of a 17th century family curse and an eventual brush with Salem witchcraft inquisitor John Hathorne*—the only judge from 1692 who never expressed regret for the trials.

It gives away nothing to say that Susanna's brood will break the rules. After all, if they don't, we'd have a paragraph, not a novel. The book opens in 1960, the cusp of when bending rules is about to become the new norm. There is also the matter of the heart desiring what the heart desires, plus let's not forget that Susanna has a sister living in Massachusetts who is equal parts witch, social worker, and cranky crone.  Aunt Isabelle plies her nieces and nephew with "tipsy chocolate cake" whenever they visit, and she knows full well that Susanna's desire to suppress her children's essential nature can only come to a bad end. Her rules of magic are simpler: "Do as you will, but harm no one."

If you've already read Practical Magic, you will find tremendous similarity between it and its prequel: animus toward differences, lingering historical fears, curses, spite, white magic, difficult personalities, and the precariousness of all relationships between the enchanted and non-gifted. But Hoffman spreads literary fairy dust to keep us spellbound in the details of how the dramas unfold. Her characters have depth, her prose is graceful, and intersecting stories are well crafted. Fans of Practical Magic will revel in new details about the Owens family, but the best thing about a well-done prequel is that you need not have read (or remembered) it to appreciate The Rules of Magic. The only downfall of reading Rules first is that you might find Practical Magic tepid by comparison. It's pretty clear that Ms. Hoffman has perfected more tricks in the past 22 years.

Rob Weir

Postscript: This novel is not slated to release until October, but orders are being taken now. I read a pre-release copy courtesy of Netgalley.

*Those who have read The Scarlet Letter will know that John Hathorne bore a curse of his own. Nathaniel Hawthorne changed the spelling of his surname to disavow his ties to his ancestor.


No comments: