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Saturday, January 24, 2009

Review: The Probable Future



By Alice Hoffman
· Paperback: 352 pages
· Publisher: Ballantine Books (June 1, 2004)
· Language: English
· ISBN-10: 0345455916

The Probable Future is the story of the Sparrow women, each of whom discovers their own unique ability on their 13th birthday. Though many Sparrow women are mentioned, the story mainly concerns the three latest generations. Elinor, the current matriarch, can discern liars; Jenny, the mother, dreams other people’s dreams; and Stella, the daughter can see the manner in which people will die. Along the way we learn a little about their infamous ancestor, Rebecca Sparrow, who was blessed (or cursed) with the inability to feel pain which lead to her demise at the hands of a suspicious mob.

Their unique gifts and long history in the town of Unity make the Sparrow women both a source of pride as well as the subject of rumor and assumptions. Desperate to escape the burden of her heritage and an un-loving mother, Jenny runs away with Will Avery an attractive young man who could charm anyone, with the exception of Elinor Sparrow who knew him to be a liar and a cheat the second she laid eyes upon him.

Jenny sacrifices her education in order to ensure that Will receives his, only to have Will squander his opportunity at Harvard University, which pretty much sets up a cycle which the couple repeats in various forms through the years. Eventually, Jenny and Will have a daughter. It is a difficult birth, but both the child and the mother survive. Jenny swears that her daughter will never learn of her heritage, and strives to be the kind of mother that she herself never had. Jenny’s efforts serve only to drive her daughter further away. Their relationship is further strained by the fact that Jenny has left Will, and he has moved out, since Stella practically worships her father.

Stella’s 13th birthday coincides with the onset of menstruation, and she begins to have graphic visions indicating a person’s manner of death. She sees a large fish trapped in her math teacher’s throat, a pea sized sphere in the brain of a cab driver, etc… Not understanding what she is seeing, Stella confides in the only person she feels that she can trust, her father.

When Stella predicts the murder of a woman in the restaurant he takes her to celebrate her birthday Stella urges Will to warn her of impending death. When the woman fails to take the vision seriously, Stella forces her father to do more in order to prevent the death. Will goes to the police to make a report, but the police don’t take him seriously either. When the murder occurs, Will becomes the prime suspect and the media descend on him and his family to get the story.


Jenny is forced to send her daughter to live with her grandmother in her ancestral home. When Jenny loses her job due to the scandal, she returns to her home as well to make a new start. With three generations of Sparrow women under one roof and the threat of the real murderer lurking in the darkness the women are forced to deal with their issues, lost loves, and the powers that they cannot deny.

I really enjoyed The Probable Future, I felt that it could very well be the story of distant cousins of the Owens women in Hoffman’s Practical Magic as the two novels bear a few striking similarities. Both stories concern the most recent in a long line of magical women, a very unique house, and the struggle to find and accept love.

Although the word witch appears only once in the whole book, there are hints that the women are witches, or have some knowledge of witchcraft. Rebecca Sparrow wanders out of the woods with only a bell, a compass, and wearing a silver star around her neck. Elinor Sparrow is accused of cursing people by sticking an onion with black headed pins, or driving chicken feathers through a knotted length of thread.

While the murder of a woman the author didn’t expend the effort to name moves the story along, the central plot of this book is the dynamic of the mother/daughter relationship. The Probable Future teaches us that the secret to a successful relationship is like one of the recipes in Rebecca Sparrow’s ancient cookbook. All the ingredients are there, we just have to add them in the right proportion. It takes a little sour to balance the sweet, a little heat can bring out flavor, but too much can burn the stew and leave a bitter taste in your mouth, and a dish left out in the cold overnight will often spoil……

Carolina Dean

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