Like most people, I became aware of Alice Hoffman‘s 1995 novel Practical Magic through the nineties film adaptation starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. It’s not a great movie, but it has a charm of its own, and it led me to the original story upon which it’s based. It’s striking to see the differences and similarities between the two.
The film leans more heavily on its magical elements, even becoming something of a supernatural thriller at some points, whereas the book is more interested in the three generations of Owens women and their lives, whether it be the tragedy of the aunts, the love stories of Gillian and Sally, or the coming-of-age rites of Antonia and Kylie.
As children, Sally and Gillian Owens were ostracized from their New England community due to the persistent rumour that they and their extended family were witches. Once they reach adulthood, they can’t wait to leave home. Gillian ends up going through a revolving door of boyfriends, while Sally settles down and has two children of her own.
But years later, after Sally has been widowed and Gillian has escaped an abusive relationship, the two sisters find each other again. Gillian desperately needs help, and arrives on her sister’s doorstep with the dead body of her boyfriend Jimmy in the backseat of the car. The two bury him in the backyard, but eventually the law — and an unquiet spirit — comes knocking…
This scenario was the crux of the 1999 movie, but the novel is about so much more. Practical Magic delves more deeply into the psyche of the two sisters, and explores how their relationship mirrors the one between Sally’s daughters Antonia and Kylie, who initially fight like cats and dogs before finding more common ground after a frightening experience.
There’s also more emphasis on Gillian’s love affair with a local school teacher, and for anyone that’s ever wondered what happened to the woman at the beginning of the film who comes to the aunts for a love spell to ensnare a married man — well, you’ll get her whole story here.
Hoffman writes in lovely prose, and (unlike the film) the magical elements are much more subtle. Often they’re whimsical and/or eerie, like the cats that follow Sally to school one day, or the lilac bush with the intoxicating smell that grows over Jimmy’s makeshift grave.
Other times Practical Magic can err on the side of the ridiculous — like the boys who get struck by lightning in their bid to impress Gillian: “their hair forever standing on end, their eyes open wide from that time onward, even while they slept.” Um, okay. You’d think an event that devastating would be explored in a little more detail, but it’s just thrown in there casually.
The romances aren’t all that deep either, and most of the time they seem to revolve around magically-heightened hormones. The book is strongest when it’s focusing on the relationships between the three generations of Owens women, which make it a fun, mysterious read.