By Alice Hoffman
If you saw the film that this book inspired in 1998 and think you know all about the Owens women who “for more than two hundred years…have been blamed for everything that went wrong in their
After the untimely death of their parents in a fire, two sisters Sally and Gillian are taken in by their eccentric Aunts. Due to their family’s reputation for being witches, Sally and Gillian are harassed and ostracized by their peers and so have no one to turn to but each other. The two sisters couldn’t be more unlike one another. Sally, the eldest sibling, copes by being the perfect child. She cooks nutritional dinners, washes and hangs the laundry and always goes to bed on time. Gillian, however, dreams of being free from the house, the Aunts, the taunting and teasing of the boys who fear her.
However, the sisters have one thing in common. They spend many nights in the shadows of the landing above the stairs in their house listening to their Aunts ply their trade as witches who specialize in affairs of the heart. They listen to the women who come to their Aunts desperate to gain love. The sisters see the toll that unrequited love takes on a woman and are disgusted at the lengths these desperate women will go to in order to obtain the one they desire. Consequently, both of the girls are afraid to love.
In an expanded subplot from the movie, as the story unfolds we actually get to see the long-term results of the love spell performed on behalf of one of the Aunts clients and the consequences of the magic invoked one night with little forethought and much desperation.
Gillian escapes the house on
Magnolia Street by running off with a boy in the middle of the night after having spiked their Aunts soup so she wouldn’t be caught. She finds herself unable to settle on any one guy, not for very long. However that doesn’t stop her from getting married three times. Sally, on the other hand, stays with the Aunts and fills her days working in the garden, doing household chores, and shopping at the hardware store for cleaning supplies.
Sally finally meets a man named Michael at the hardware store. They fall in love, get married and have two daughters Antonia and Kylie. For a time, she is happy. Nonetheless, the death-watch beetle begins to mark off Michael’s time on earth and he is doomed to die. At first Sally doesn’t believe her Aunts when they tell her, until she slowly begins to believe their warnings and Sally goes to the Aunts for help. Having already secretly done everything they were able, the Aunts could offer no advice but to accept the inevitable.
After Michael’s death, Sally goes into a deep depression which last for exactly one year. During that time the Aunts become Antonia and Kyle’s main caregivers. When Sally comes out of her depression, she witnesses that her daughters are now being subjected to the same harassment that she and her sisters suffered through so many years ago. She then decides to do just as her sister had done years before. She uses Michael’s insurance money and some of her own savings to move away from the Aunts and start a new life in
. There she attempts to give her daughters something that she herself felt that she never had…a normal life. New York
Rather than opening her own business as in the movie, Sally takes a job as a school secretary so that she can be home when her daughters come home from school and the job has the added bonus of allowing her to have summers off. Just when it seems that Sally has achieved her goal of a normal life, Gillian shows up on her doorstep one hot summer night with Jimmy Hawkins, her dead boyfriend, in her car.
Gillian fears that she has murdered Jimmy because she had been slipping him nightshade every night to prevent him from getting drunk and consequently hurting her. It seems that though Jimmy has a long history of hurting, even murdering, the ones around him Gillian is compelled to love him and like many abused women, can’t seem to leave her abuser. Not even her magic seems strong enough to take away her love for him. This is in direct contrast with all her previous experiences with men, in that since the time she was a teenager men and boys fell in love with her at first sight. She often had them wrapped around her little finger and just when they thought their love was secure---she left the relationship. The sisters ultimately decide to bury Jimmy in the backyard and forget about the entire incident.
The book then begins to focus on the relationship between Sally’s daughters Antonia and Kylie. Being teenagers, the girls have a strained relationship. Like Sally and Gillian, they appear to be more unlike that alike in their outlook and attitudes. Antonia is more like her Aunt Gillian—beautiful, spoiled, wild, and carefree; whereas Kylie is more like her mother—responsible, introverted, and sensitive. It is only when Kylie’s beauty threatens to outshine her own that Antonia begins to contemplate her future and what she has to offer the world, rather than what the world has to offer her. As Kylie develops physically, she becomes surer of herself and more aware of her own beauty. It is only after she is almost sexually assaulted that Antonia and Kylie renew their sisterly bond.
Throughout these events, Gillian has formed a relationship with Kylie who looks to her Aunt as a role model for what she believes a woman should be. Thus further strains the relationship between Sally and Gillian as Sally feels that her daughters are still babies, and is not eager to see them grow up just yet. Jimmy’s ghostly influence uses their resentment for one another to further destroy Sally and Gillian’s sisterly bond and drive them apart forever. Jimmy’s spirit seems to take over the back yard where he is buried. The lilacs grow great lengths overnight and their scent draws the attention of the neighborhood women who come to the garden gate to look at them. It seems that the scent of the lilacs stir painful memories in these women, who uncontrollably weep when these memories resurface. Jimmy’s influence reaches into the house as well, as food begins to spoil overnight and dead creatures are found in the toilet and sink.
On Kylie’s 13th birthday, she develops the ability to see auras and other mystical phenomena. It is her that eventually causes Sally and Gillian to realize that Jimmy’s spirit is attacking not only the house, but Sally and Gillian themselves. After Sally cuts down the lilacs, things seem to improve. Antonia’s biology teacher, Ben Frye, falls in love with Gillian and begins to peruse a relationship with her, although she is adamant that she will be “single forever.” Sally too is challenged by love when Gary Hallet, an investigator from
looking into Jimmy’s disappearance, arrives at her doorstep drawn by a letter Sally sent to Gillian some months prior. With no where else to turn, Sally and Gillian call the Aunts for help in ridding themselves of Jimmy’s ghostly influence. Arizona
On the whole, the beginning and ending of the book is somewhat similar to the movie. Although Jimmy’s spiritual death is not as dramatic as it was in the movie and no one becomes possessed, however, this is in keeping with the magical realism genre. The middle part of the book focuses more on Sally’s daughters as they grow from teenagers to young adults and draws a parallel between them and the generations of Owens women who have come before.
Thankfully the absolutely absurd scene from the movie where the witches jump off their roof with umbrellas is absent from the book. I loved the inclusion of actual spells that are so descriptive of the Aunt’s old-world flavor of witchcraft. Although we do get some background information on the Aunts, I think it would be wonderful for Hoffman to write a prequel featuring these wonderful characters.
Practical Magic is a book that I will return to again and again. The author’s descriptive prose and attention to detail brings a greater depth to the story. It is rich in imagination, ripe with characterization, and possessed of a wisdom that will not be lost on the attentive reader.
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