I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
Published by Simon & Schuster on October 10 2017
Genres: Adult, Magic realism
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The nitty-gritty: Luminous and magical, The Rules of Magic is Alice Hoffman at her best.
Today everything smelled earthy, the rich scent of mulch and decaying leaves and roots. It was an ending and a beginning, for the month itself was like a gate. October began as a golden hour and ended with Samhain, the day when the worlds of the living and the dead opened to each other. There was no choice but to walk through the gate of time.
Alice Hoffman has always been able to captivate me with her magical novels, ever since I read Turtle Moon way back in the 90s. And her latest is no different, although this time she’s made me even more of an emotional mess, because The Rules of Magic is a prequel to one of my favorite Hoffman novels, Practical Magic. Anyone who’s read and loved an Alice Hoffman story knows exactly what I’m talking about. She draws the reader in with quirky characters and before you know it, you’re so deeply involved with her story, that you don’t see the bad stuff coming until it hits you in the face like a baseball bat. Her dreamy style may not be for everyone, but it’s hard for me to imagine any reader who won’t shed at least a couple of tears after reading this story.
The Rules of Magic starts in the late 1950s and tells the coming-of-age story of Frances, Bridget and Vincent Owens, three siblings who are descended from a long line of witches. Their mother Susanna is determined to keep her children safely away from their magical heritage, and so she imposes her rules on them right from the start: don’t walk in the moonlight, don’t light candles, don’t wear red shoes or black clothing, and most of all, NEVER fall in love. The Owens’ are cursed, and it’s said that anyone who falls in love with them will eventually meet a tragic end.
But despite Susanna’s efforts, all three children exhibit magical abilities. Franny, the eldest, can communicate with birds, and they flock to her whenever she’s outside. Bridget, or “Jet” as she’s called, knows exactly what people are thinking. And Vincent, the baby of the family, a dark-haired and charismatic boy with a natural talent for music, can see the future. Their sheltered lives change forever in 1960, when their Aunt Isabelle, an aunt they didn’t even know about, invites them to Boston for the summer. In Isabelle’s old house on Magnolia Street, the siblings’ talents blossom. Isabelle gives them the freedom they never had at home, and little by little they begin to learn more about their family history, especially the dire warning that falling in love will only bring heartache.
When a tragic accident kills two boys that Franny and Jet have been hanging out with, the three Owens’ vow never to fall in love again. But that’s easier said than done. Jet meets a boy named Levi who turns out to be her soul mate, and even Franny falls for her childhood friend Haylin. Vincent is never without a girl in his bed, although none of them seem to satisfy him. Little do they know that the impending war will have dire consequences for all of them, especially Vincent, who has finally found the love of his life.
To say any more about the plot will give too much away. Hoffman’s story has several themes running through it, the most important of which is to be yourself, no matter what. Each of the Owens siblings learns that lesson the hard way, as they are tormented in school for being different, and even told to hide their abilities by their mother. It’s only when they meet Isabelle, who gives them the courage to “be themselves,” that they break free from the restraints that society wants to bind them with. Vincent faces the biggest challenge after he falls in love with a man (and finally realizes why his relationships with women were so empty). But being gay in the 60s and 70s was probably even harder than it is today and Vincent’s journey is fraught with challenges.
As in most of Hoffman’s books, love is a huge theme. That’s not to say that this story is a romance, per se, although each character finds love and relationships in one way or another. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any happy endings here, but Hoffman has a way of turning the worst tragedies into things of beauty. I found Jet’s story to be the most heartbreaking, but in the end, her heartbreak allowed a new relationship to grow, one that was completely unexpected. It’s these twists of fortune that leave me crying happy tears, and as I mentioned before, Alice Hoffman fans will probably be nodding their heads in understanding.
But of all the characters, the one I loved the most was Vincent. I want to tell you what happens to him, but I won’t. I will say that everything falls apart when the Vietnam War draft goes into effect, and even though the war itself isn’t a big part of the story, its effects on the characters are.
I also loved April Owens, the cousin who pops in and out of their lives over the years. April doesn’t care what anyone thinks about her, and I loved her for that. She later gives birth to a daughter (whose father remains a mystery until the end), who eventually becomes the mother of the sisters Sally and Gillian from Practical Magic. (Yes, this is a story of a very tangled family tree!) I nearly swooned when all the loose ends came together, because half of the fun of reading The Rules of Magic is trying to figure out how Hoffman is going to connect the two books.
And I can’t end this review without mentioning the animals in the story. Like most witches, each Owens has their own familiar. Franny has a crow named Lewis, Vincent has a dog named Harry, and even Jet has a familiar, a cat named Wren. The animals are important characters, and it wouldn’t have been the same story without them.
And all the magical moments! This story is filled with little details about how the children learn from their elders and the traditions of witchcraft continue to be passed down through the generations. Even Isabelle’s “courage tea” becomes something magical, and in the end, despite all the dire warnings about falling in love, everyone agrees that “the only remedy for love is to love more.” When I finished this book, I immediately went to my bookshelves to find my copy of Practical Magic. You can bet I’ll be doing a reread very soon.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.