Tuesday 5 September 2017

The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

Amazon UK £9.99
Amazon US $12.71 $18.29

Supernatural /Family Drama
[Note from Helen: strictly speaking not an historical novel, and it is set in the 1960s, whereas we usually accept book set pre 1950… however, this review looked too good to turn down… H.H.]

It’s been a long while since I was last as enraptured by a book as I was with The Rules of Magic. I don’t know if it’s because I really love Alice Hoffman or if I was just ready for a good magical realism or if this was just the book I needed to kick me out of the awful reading slump I’ve been in for months. In any case, I devoured The Rules of Magic like I was Oliver Twist. Please, Ms. Hoffman, may I have some more?

Set mostly in the 1960s, this novel is full to the cauldron’s brim with magic and atmosphere. I loved that it wasn’t always possible to tell if the mystical, near-psychedelic quality to the storytelling was part of the magical realism or part of the ‘60s era culture, or a combination of the two. In any case, it blended perfectly and created a tale like none other.

I’m a sucker for back stories anyway. Aunt Jet and Aunt Frances are among my favourite characters in modern literature. So I was delighted to see them get their own entire novel. Their stories are tragic and beautiful, and both entirely unique to themselves. Frances is the elder of the two, tall and coltish with blood red hair. She’s prickly and difficult and likes science and has exactly zero time for superstition or family curses. And yet she thinks nothing of the fact that she can call wild birds to her hand just by lifting it up. Bridget, called Jet for her long black hair, is sweet tempered and loves people, though I can’t for the life of me understand why because she has the Sight. They also have a brother, Vincent, the only boy ever born to an Owens woman. He is so charismatic that his delivery room nurse tried to steal him as her own. All the children are talented, as befits Owens children. The sisters are beautiful, but Jet is so gorgeous that boys do dangerous things to try to get her attention. When a flirtation with twin brothers results in their death, Franny, Jet, and Vincent decide the family curse is real and vow not to fall in love. The ways in which they manage to finagle their way around that are truly inventive, sometimes amusing, often heartbreaking.

The cast of characters throughout this gorgeous novel is complex and well rounded. The Owens have a long list of cousins and aunts who make appearances, most notably April Owens, the granny of Sally and Gillian of Practical Magic fame, and Aunt Isabelle. She filled the role in this book that Frances and Jet would later fill for Sally and Gillian: wise woman, mentor, role model, friend. She was the best.

The book was sprinkled with Hoffman’s typical vivid language and, appropriately, rules of magic. For example, uncross your knives if there is a quarrel at the table; do walk in the moonlight; wear red shoes; wear black; go barefoot; plant night-blooming flowers; read novels about magic. To mourn properly, you must drape all the furniture in white sheets, war a black silk band on your right arm, turn the mirrors toward the wall, sprinkle salt on the windowsills, leave sprigs or rosemary outside the doors, wear white to the funeral, go barefoot to it out of respect. Make a protection amulet with black cloth sewn with red thread and containing clove and blackthorn, or lavender. Wear a blue string coated with lavender oil, also for protection. I was inordinately tickled that I do a lot of these things by nature. Wearing black, going barefoot, wearing red shoes if I MUST wear shoes at all… are there people who don’t automatically do these things?

There are also references to various teas that I want to try blending, just because they sound tasty:

Fever Tea: cinnamon, bayberry, ginger, thyme, marjoram
Frustration Tea: chamomile, hyssop, raspberry leaf, rosemary
Clairvoyant Tea: mugwort, thyme, yarrow, rosemary
Travel Well Tea: orange peel, black tea, mint, rosemary

One recipe I really wish was included, like an actual recipe, and which I have wished for since I first read about it in Practical Magic, is the black soap all the Owens women use to wash their faces. I know it’s just soap and not magic - maybe - but I still want to try making some for myself. The only thing I can find that might possibly be similar is African Black Soap, but that still doesn’t seem quite right. Can anyone help us out? Bueller? Bueller? Ms. Hoffman?

Hoffman’s magical realism is as nuanced and ubiquitous as ever in The Rules of Magic. Birds coming to Franny’s call, Jet reading minds, plants flowering overnight and out of season, all abound. The real beauty of the book, though, comes from learning more about beloved characters, and watching them learn who they are. Through them, we discover that true magic comes from embracing our genuine nature and learning to love ourselves despite, or because, of it.

© Kristen McQuinn, M.A.
(advanced reading copy reviewed)

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