BOOK REVIEW: Practical Magic, By Alice Hoffman
As I’m sure is the case for many, I grew up loving the film adaptation of Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman. It only occurred to me late last year that I really should read the book. My drive to do so stemmed entirely from the release of The Rules of Magic, which is the prologue to Practical Magic.
I wish I could say I was wowed and fell in love with the characters all over again but that, unfortunately, was not the case.
Raised by their aunts from a young age, Gillian and Sally grew up in a not so welcoming town populated by people who both feared and revered the Owens women depending on their circumstances. A childhood spent watching the constant stream of unhappy people beg the aunts for their assistance and observing the consequences, Gillian and Sally want two things: to be happy and to escape.
Gillian, the ‘wild child’, elopes and disappears in the dead of night before spending a number of years flitting from man to man, adamant that she would never again set foot east of the Mississippi. That is until she needs Sally to bail her out. After the death of her husband, Sally leaves the aunts behind and the little town they called home for a place where she could fade into the background and raise her daughters without whispers of witchcraft. It’s Gillian’s unexpected arrival on Sally’s doorstep that stirs things up.
Practical Magic was a well written, well-developed novel and entirely deserving of a four-star rating. For me, however, my opinion of the book was severely influenced by the screen adaptation and I struggled not to compare the two as I read.
Lovers of the Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman adaptation should not read this book expecting to read about curses, incantations, deathwatch beetles and midnight margaritas with the aunts. The aunts play a tiny role in this book and, quite literally, turn up to the save the day at the very end. The sisters are not magically gifted and do not expect them to be lighting candles with a puff of breath. In fact, the magical elements in this novel are rather lacklustre and limited to Kylie developing a sight on her 13th birthday.
The characters are also very different. Whereas film Sally decided to brave the town and opened her own cosmetics shop and in the end breakdown the townspeople’s fear of them, book Sally runs away to a town in New York state and becomes a high school secretary.
Antonia and Kylie are also very different in the books but I think their book representations were far more fleshed out and their development as they grow is assessed with a depth that the film adaptation could not. Gillian is very much the same character in both the book and film, only the book changes her circumstances towards the end to help her grow as a character and finally settle down.
The formatting of the book threw me off at first; it is written in four large sections, there is very little dialogue and at points, perspective would change in the middle of a page without warning. As I progressed, however, I began to see it as a challenge: could I finish an entire section in one sitting? I could have happily done without the challenge but I think it helped me power through the book when it very likely would have sat on my currently reading for months otherwise.
Despite my gripes with the differences, I did enjoy reading this book. There are elements that I missed dearly but it was still enjoyable, particularly reading Antonia and Kylie changing perspectives as they grew up. Reading about Sally and Gillian’s relationship in more detail was also a fascinating insight into the growth of family bonds.
If there is one thing I can advise future readers of, leave everything you know about Practical Magic at the door when picking up this read. You’ll enjoy it far more if you do.
Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman
Genre: Magical realism
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