The Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
It’s been over twenty years since Practical Magic was first published, and now we can finally snuggle up and enjoy another book about the Owens family. The Rules of Magic (2017) centres on the aunts of the first novel: Frances and Jet Owens, who are born and raised in 1950s New York City, along with their brother Vincent.
Like all Owens women, they are strikingly beautiful and surrounded by mystery. Jet can read minds, Frances can call birds to her hand, and even Vincent is blessed with an irresistible charm. But their parents are determined that their children should grow up as normal as possible, and it’s not until they reach adolescence that they begin to realize the truth of their heritage.
And if one thing is certain, it’s that a witch who denies her identity is doomed to misery. So while Frances buries her feelings for her childhood friend Haylin, Jet embraces her forbidden love affair with Levi, the descendant of the very man who loved and betrayed their ancestor Maria. Both choices will have bitter consequences.
What strikes me as interesting is that Alice Hoffman seems to have borrowed heavily from the 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock in setting up the main conflict in The Rules of Magic. It was the film that introduced the idea of the Owens women being cursed in love due to a spell laid down by their ancestor Maria, something that wasn’t explicitly present in the original novel (the women were unlucky in love, but not cursed). Yet here a curse is in full effect, right down to the noise of the deathwatch beetle heralding the doom of any man loved by an Owens woman (another invention of the film).
Eventually the book starts to coincide with the beginning of Practical Magic (though if you’ve read the first book, the two boys who are struck by lightning in their bid to impress Jet and Frances get only a throwaway mention here, and aren’t nearly as important as they were made out to be in Practical Magic). But Sally and Gillian make appearances, bringing the story full-circle, as all good prequels should.
After twenty years you can see the difference in Hoffman’s prose. She writes so much more confidently, and brings to life the beautiful house on Magnolia Street, the atmosphere of New York in the sixties, and the strange, subtle magic that follows the Owens family wherever it goes. From a white deer in Central Park to the making of black soap by moonlight, The Rules of Magic beautifully recaptures the underlying world of signs, spells and secrets that made Practical Magic such a hit.
The characterization is better too; I felt as though I understood Frances, Jet and Vincent so much more than I did Sally and Gillian, and their difficult journey through the years to find a sense of peace with themselves and each other. They’re not perfect, and each make plenty of mistakes along the way, but their devotion to each other and their sincere attempts to do no harm (even when they fail) is something you can’t help but admire.
So it was fun to revisit the Owens family saga — perhaps in another twenty years we could get a story on Maria Owens, the woman who started it all…
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