“Books may well be the only true magic”, stated Alice Hoffman and her latest book, Magic Lessons, the most recent in her Practical Magic series, is proof positive of this. While Practical Magic told the story of sisters Sally and Gillian, and The Rules of Magic, that of the indomitable aunts Frances and Jet, Magic Lessons centres on ancestor Maria Owens: the root of the Owens family tree. Magic Lessons follows Maria, from being found by the village wise woman, to the casting of the curse that would kill any man who’d love an Owens. Maria’s story and curse have hung over the books since Practical Magic’s release in 1995. Now, we can read how it all began.
Growing up with foster mother and wise woman Hannah, Maria soon develops an aptitude for witchcraft. With the arrival of her birth mother, her life spirals, having to rely on her will, wits and witchery. Shipped to Curaçao as a servant, Maria falls for married John Hathorne – their nights of passion resulting in a daughter, Faith. But John abandons Maria and Faith, returning to his family in Salem – and Maria follows. Unable to capture John’s affection, Maria sets up shop in the woods, townswomen coming to her for cures and curses. But her abilities do not go unnoticed; she is arrested and sentenced to hang, leaving Faith with a local woman, who turns out to be a sheep in wolf’s clothing. Having escaped the noose, Maria begins her desperate search for Faith, herself taken a darker path.
No one could doubt the breadth of Hoffman’s skill, in language and in research. Interwoven with references to historical spells, Hoffman enchants the senses in every scene – you can feel the churn of the ocean under the boat to Salem; you can smell the apple pie baked to summon Faith; and you are pained by the heartbreak of treacherous lovers. However, there are times when this slows the pace – there is no dialogue for the first 20 pages. While I delight in the book feeling like a Grimoire (a spell book to us in the know), knowing how to enact revenge with wax and pins leaves fewer words for the plot.
If magic and language be the vines, then Hoffman and the novel blossom when talking about love – most of my underlining were quotes about love. Like an alchemist in her lab, Hoffman has the ability to distil the essence of love into her words. “Love everlasting, young love, love defiled, loved wished for desperately, or love to be rid of as quickly as possible”: these are all parts of Maria and Hoffman’s trade. Even with Hannah and Maria’s birth mother’s cautionary tales, Hoffman reminds us that there is no advice like experience when it comes to matters of the heart. Maria may have powers, but even witches aren’t immune to the rewards and trials of love. It is not just romantic love that Hoffman has bubbling in her cauldron, for Hoffman writes just as poignantly about familial love, especially the bond between mothers and daughters. But even these bonds are not unshakeable, mothers having to answer for abandonment. Love always needs a remedy; sometimes they are the words of an author – other times, the words of a witch. Our hearts beat and bleed with the characters’.
Despite the occasional pacing issues, Magic Lessons is a delightful display of Hoffman’s skill in storytelling, blending history and love into a pitcher of midnight margaritas that you’ll want to share with every character. Hoffman reminds us where power and love can be found, how to use it, and what happens when we abuse it – a pertinent lesson in these uncertain times. Hoffman’s words are both comfort and counsel, taking you by the hand and promising you everything will be okay, offering a slice of magical advice too. So, forget vampires and werewolves – October is the season of the witch, and Alice Hoffman is its mistress.
Words by James Reynolds
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