Posted in [fiction reviews]

[Fiction Review] “Practical Magic” by Alice Hoffman

Full Title: Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman
Published: Reissue edition from 2003 by Berkley
Genres: Fiction, Family Saga, Magical Realism, Paranormal, Fantasy
Edition Details: 286 pages, trade paperback
Source: Purchased
Rating: {4/5 stars}

First Glance

I’m not a movie person. Period.

That said, Practical Magic is one of the few movies I still call a favorite, even as the years progress and the filming style (i.e. special effects, acting methods, directing, etc.) become more and more aged. I had no idea back in 1998 that the movie was based on a book; I was an eleven year old in a world without internet in everyone’s house, so I enjoyed the movie and moved on.

I only found out about the book when the prequel showed up on our bookstore’s display during my birthday trip. I picked up both books and added them to my TBR list, and a friend’s decision to create an online book club led to me bumping Practical Magic up to read next.

Positive Bits

This review contains spoilers, because this book and movie have been out for years. Fair warning!

Hoffman’s voice is unique in the way she tells her story. Instead of reading a story as though we are the omnipotent viewer, we get to experience the story as though we’re listening to a storyteller as they tell us the story. There’s not a ton of dialogue, but we get a taste of each character’s inner world through the descriptions of what they’re doing and feeling. It’s an interesting approach to telling a story that you don’t see often.

Kylie (Sally’s younger daughter of thirteen) is probably the most interesting character in the book. I enjoyed experiencing her sudden onset of aura and energy awareness, as some of the descriptions really hammer home the way someone with high empathy can feel. She felt like the character who was given the most depth, which is amusing when you consider that her main role in the movies was to be the little girl that saw Jimmy’s ghost. I think the story benefited overall from having teenagers instead of children in the family, as teenagers can provide another pair of nearly-adult eyes to view the story.

If I completely ignore the fact that a movie of this book exists and measure the book on its own standing, then I enjoyed the story. The magical realism involved is extremely subtle (i.e. almost non-existent), but I think it lends just enough suspension of disbelief to make the rest of the story believable. Without the hints of magic, the events that happen and the characters’ reactions to them wouldn’t make any sense.

Less Enjoyable Bits

My wife had to keep correcting me as I talked about this book. In my head, the movie has existed since I was a kid but the book only came into existence (for me) this year. Every difference I noticed came out as “they took out the part where…” instead of “the movie added a part where…”. Regardless, my problems with this book were largely based on what never happened outside of the movie. Some of my favorite scenes included the love spell meant to keep love away and the PTA phone tree calling in a volunteer coven to help save the day… neither of which existed in the book. Basically, the book had none of the movie’s magic woven into the story, and that was disappointing to a fan of the movie’s version of events.

Aside from artistic differences between the book and movie, I took issue with some of the random vulgarity in the descriptions. Hoffman’s prose is generally soft and floaty, like you’re listening to a storyteller, but she randomly tosses in details like “Maybe it’s because she’s just realized who it was she was fucking and calling sweetheart all that time. (page 223)” that become jarring as they enter the scene. There were a handful of times where the that kind of sharp note showed up unannounced, and I don’t feel like they were necessary to tell the story. Sometimes these moments also occurred within tangents in the prose, leaving them to feel both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

This book is labeled as magical realism, but it’s disappointingly mundane. Sure, the aunts are witch-like women who occasionally perform a love spell for someone foolish, but mostly they make soap to sustain themselves. They ride a bus to go down and help the girls out. One of Sally’s daughters can see auras when she turns thirteen, but it’s not important except to explain her seeing Jimmy’s spirit around the garden where he’s buried. She sees a pair of men leave a bar drunk, and her ability to see auras isn’t needed to see that they’re troublemakers; in fact, her ability plays no part in her own story outside of seeing Jimmy’s spirit off and on. Most of the story is based in the kind of world Sally wants to live in: a normal one.

Tidbits Worth Repeating

It doesn’t matter what people tell you. It doesn’t matter what they might say. Sometimes you have to leave home. Sometimes, running away means you’re headed in the exact right direction. – page 56

On especially hot days, when you’d like to murder whoever crosses you, or at least give him a good slap, drink lemonade instead. – page 193

Although she’d never believe it, those lines in Gillian’s face are the most beautiful part about her. They reveal what she’s gone through and what she’s survived and who exactly she is, deep inside. – page 265

Is it worth the coin?

Yes – as long as you’re not looking to read the movie in book form. They’re nothing alike, but I think the book stood up well on its own.