To begin, I was wary, as one often is when an author revisits a beloved book so many years later. But let me say up front, for those of you who might also be a bit hesitant about going back to the Owens family two decades after Practical Magic, that Alice Hoffman’s latest novel, The Rules of Magic, a prequel to her mid-90’s hit, is stunning. In fact, it is probably better than the original. (Though, I should interject here and say maybe I’m not the most best person to make that claim, since I always secretly preferred the movie version of Practical Magic already, based, if nothing else, on the phenomenal casting and the addition of a fantastic lady-powered-PTA-turned-makeshift-coven scene at the end.)
The Rules of Magic follows sisters Franny and Jet (who turn into “the aunts” of Practical Magic) as well as their brother Vincent, romping through New York City of the 1960’s and 70’s, discovering their family’s long-hidden secrets and creating a few skeletons of their own for the Owen’s closet. The novel deals quite closely with the famous “curse” explored in the earlier novel, this being that no Owens woman can fall in love, or the man she loves will soon be tragically (and usually quickly) killed. The source of this curse, as family legend has it, was their ancestor Maria Owens, who was burned as a witch by the man she loved and whose child she bore, none other than (actual person) John Hathorne, notoriously sadistic witch hunter of Salem circa the beginning of the 18th century.
It’s impossible not to base a proper review of The Rules of Magic on a comparison to the previous novel, because of course that’s what one reads for — to see if the magic of that story holds. It certainly does and then some. While Practical Magic had explored much in the way of some pretty heavy-hitting themes — love of all kinds, implicit and explicit violence against women, identity and its tricky, twisty multiplicitousness, all of these excellently handled by Hoffman — The Rules of Magic is, to put it simply, a more fleshed out novel. There is more to it. There’s the Greenwich Village of the 60’s, the L.A. of the 70’s. There’s more magic (dark and light) and the Vietnam War and the rise of a distinct gay culture that was met with aversion and violence.
While it doesn’t rely too heavily on detailing a previous era, I’d argue that The Rules of Magic is fairly historically grounded, and certainly more so than Practical Magic. Reading the latter — published in 1995 — you have a sense that, despite its geographical clues, the story occurs off in some abstract story universe somewhere. With the crazy aunts and the magical garden and the spells and the strange girls who never quite belong anywhere. It’s a bit of a fairy tale. Contrarily, this novel is very much involved in its setting and in its general social climate. While the novel bears no direct links to the present, I can’t help but get the sense that here, in this moment, this post-Recession, mid-political-Apocalypse, sexual predatory shit storm of a moment, while we watch rights and freedoms that one assumed (falsely) had been taken care of in previous generations dissolve right before our eyes, no novel really has the luxury of feeling as though it could be anywhere and everywhere. We are so stuck in the dense reality of our own time that even in the realm of fiction, we are not as willing to grant ourselves the a certain kind of dreamy placelessness and timelessness. Being Hoffman, it’s still in the realm of magical realism, but the emphasis is a bit more on the real this time around.
Another way in which this novel simply feels larger than the other is that (to put it bluntly) Franny and Jet are more interesting characters. Sally and Gillian, the sisters of Practical Magic, always felt to me more of a pure dualism, an abstract exploration of opposites, two people who were who they were because of their tension. But Franny and Jet are people that you spend a whole book getting to know. Of course, they do have their distinct differences — Franny’s penchant for the scientific and Jet’s whimsy and romanticism, which create a magnificent trio along with Vincent’s brooding magical existentialism. But they are very much individuals, and part of their character development is seen in their various reactions to the Owens family curse, which, of course, is a fabulous fictional ruse meant to explore the ways in which we all react to love and the ensuing pain that it brings. Jump in head first? Proceed with caution? Reject entirely? The acceptance or denial of love — both familial and romantic — shapes everything in the lives of these three siblings.
Perhaps the best part of the novel is that all of Hoffman’s side characters — even the parents who serve as little more than plot-furthering buzzkill — are so interesting that you want to know more about them. Probably the best example of this is cousin April (grandmother to little girls Sally and Gillian who show up at the end of the book, where the plot to Practical Magic begins), who is a snarky and somewhat disturbed genius of a teenage girl. Mainly, she shows up in order to make a baby (thus producing the line that serves as the bridge between the two novels) and also to provide some necessary tension in the relationship between Franny, Jet and Vincent. (Let’s be honest, otherwise, the siblings just get along too well.)
But rather than leaving the book feeling that you’ve missed out on all these interesting side stories, you get the sense that they’re there waiting for you. What was April’s life like in Bohemian California as the unwed mother of little Regina? What’s Aunt Isabelle’s story? And, most obviously, what kind of life does Vincent live after he leaves? There are at least eight more books to be written around the Owens family, and I, personally, am holding out hope that we haven’t seen the last of them.