Saturday, 19 November 2011

Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

I was going to add a movie trailer to the bottom of this review, but the original one I found on YouTube is horrendously misleading!  Makes the whole thing out to be some fluffy romantic tat, when in fact it's quite a lot darker and more involved than that.  But anyway, my review!


by Alice Hoffman (Vintage, 2002)

I'm afraid I ruined this book for myself somewhat by having already seen the film a fair few times.  Back before I'd even heard of Alice Hoffman, Practical Magic was one of my favourite movies!  As so often happens when I watch an adaptation first, I found myself comparing screen to page too often, and inadvertently reading certain parts faster than I should, waiting for the two versions to tie up again.

This, however, is not Hoffman's fault in any way, hence my 4-star rating.  It might even have toppled The Ice Queen from its position as my favourite Hoffman novel so far, had it not been for the movie thing.  Anyone who's read Hoffman before knows what to expect: a beautifully written, wistful novel blending elements of magic (and more subtle magical realism) with strong, unusual characters and an exploration of the bonds we form with places, lovers and family.

In Practical Magic the story revolves around Gillian and Sally, the beautiful Owens sisters.  Orphaned at a young age, they have had a strange upbringing in their aunts' house, where they are simultaneously feared and revered by the local townspeople.  Desperate to escape, Gillian runs away to seek her own path and Sally marries a wonderful man and has two headstrong daughters.  But when Sally loses her husband in a tragic accident, and Gillian accidentally kills hers, the two are reunited at last.  Will Sally's teenage daughters, Kylie and Antonia, make peace with each other and be happy?  Will Gillian and the aunts reconcile their differences?  Will Sally ever find love again?  And will they finally escape the dark and vengeful spirit of Gillian's abusive husband, which casts its bitter shadow across their whole existence?

If you've seen the film, read this anyway - but go into it with a more open mind than I did, because there are substantial differences between the two.  If you haven't seen the film, then I highly recommend the book.  Hoffman is such a lyrical and haunting writer, and Gillian, Sally and their quirky aunts are some of the most appealing and relatable characters I've come across in her books yet.  I still love the movie though!

Notable quotables:
  • ""Fourth time's the charm," she says to people who ask her what the secret of a happy marriage is, but that's not the way she feels about it.  She knows now that when you don't lose yourself in the bargain, you find you have double the love you started with, and that's one recipe that can't be tampered with."
  • "There are some things, after all, that Sally Owens knows for certain: Always throw spilled salt over your left shoulder.  Keep rosemary by your garden gate.  Add pepper to your mashed potatoes.  Plant roses and lavender, for luck.  Fall in love whenever you can."


  1. Alice Hoffman is one of my favorite authors and I really enjoyed reading this book. I agree, it is quite different from the movie. Great review!

  2. I like Hoffman, but I too read this when I had already seen and loved the movie. I think I prefer the movie actually. (Shame on me, I know.)

    I love that last quote that you posted. It makes me want to go buy a house so that I can plant rosemary by my garden gate :-)

  3. I think I saw this movie a long long time ago...but I can't remember anything. I'd love to read this!! Adding it to my WishList :)

  4. Thanks Anne! I've been steadily collecting her novels since I read 'The Ice Queen' a few years ago, so I have lots of Hoffman magic yet to come!

    Sarah - *whispers* Me too! I think... I certainly loved the movie a few years ago - more magic, and I liked the fact that the aunts were in it more, and the 'perfect man that doesn't exist thing' - but we only had it on video so I haven't seen it in a while. It's in my Amazon basket right now! ;)

    Peppermint (I keep wanting to write Peppermint Patty, oops!) - Read and watch, READ AND WATCH! Happy to have corrupted another wishlist, yay!

  5. I adore Alice Hoffman. I'm reading The Red Garden for book club right now and it is wonderful. Thanks for highlighting this book. I'm putting it on my to-read list. I watched the movie years ago and enjoyed it.


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