Book Review – Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

practical magic - book coverI had seen the movie Practical Magic a number of times before I ever realized it was a book. Since one of my favorite things to do is compare book adaptations like that, it was only a matter of time before I got around to reading Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic after learning that fact. There are some obvious changes from one medium to the other, mostly to flesh out thematic elements that take more of a back seat in the novel, but the story remains both recognizable and compelling between the two forms—not an easy feat.

Sally and Gillian Owens grow up with two distantly related aunts after their parents’ tragic deaths. They know that their aunts aren’t like other people in the town and everyone else knows it too so that the two girls also fall under the general umbrella of being Other. Gillian leaves as soon as she can, running away in the night with a young man and not looking back. Sally stays and finds a bit of normalcy when she marries and starts a family of her own. But tragedy strikes again and it’s Sally’s turn to leave the aunts, taking her own daughters to start again on her own. Years later Gillian turns up in Sally’s driveway needing her sister’s help and long ignored issues—especially personal and familial—must be addressed and remedied.

Where the film choses to focus on exploring the sisters’ status as Other and their relationship with their community, when the novel does so its at a much more personal level (a level that makes it particularly difficult to adapt to the screen). Sally and Gillian both carry fear and doubt about their role in society and how to handle meeting—or failing to meet—those expectations. Sally especially wants to be sure her daughters are spared that sense of not belonging. But what takes greater precedence in the novel is the way the various women and girls (Sally’s daughters Antonia and Kylie are given a much more prominent and self-aware characterization in the book) let those feelings of not belonging affect their treatment of themselves.

Gillian struggles with finding a harmonious balance with the men in her life, falling into abusive relationships, leaving them before she can be left, and trying to enjoy the ride while protecting herself from feeling too much. Sally struggles with many of the same issues but in a drastically different way, shutting herself off emotionally from most people while controlling as much of her environment as she can. Her daughters reflect similar conflicts in many ways as she and Gillian, especially with each other. The older Antonia picks on the younger and more physically awkward Kylie. When Gillian arrives on the scene, the girls begin to see their mother and themselves in a different light as Gillian upsets the prior balance. True harmony can only be restored to all the Owens ladies when they’ve confronted and overcome their personal fears, when they’ve stopped trying to compete with their sisters and instead communicate and relate to them honestly, banding together against an outside force (symbolically menacing and undeniably masculine, though there are also examples of respectful masculinity in the novel as well) and overpowering it.

While I enjoy the community aspects of the film a great deal, the self-acceptance of the more character-driven book carries a much greater thematic weight. I look forward to reading more of Hoffman’s work to see if and how she addresses these themes again.

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