Practical Magic (1995)

by Alice Hoffman

As Practical Magic opens, Sally and Gillian Owens are orphaned sisters growing up with two aunts in a spooky house in Massachusetts. “The aunts” — they’re seldom called by name — are the current incarnations of a long line of Owens witches. In public the Owenses are shunned and blamed for everything that goes wrong in town, but after nightfall lovesick women and girls come to the aunts’ backdoor for potions and spells in the hope of securing their heartthrobs.

Sally and Gillian just want to be normal. The ultraconscientious Sally marries and, after she is widowed young, escapes to Long Island with her two small daughters and lives a mundane suburban life. Gillian, impulsive and lazy, runs off to a life of unstable relationships and cavorting about the country. When Sally’s daughters are teens, Gillian arrives on Sally’s doorstep with her dead lover in the front seat of the car.

In the rest of the book, the Owens sisters find that witchiness can be useful, especially when you’re haunted by an evil spirit in the backyard. The family magic is called to the rescue, and the aunts return to the scene.

What’s marvelous about Hoffman’s storytelling is that she blends the magical with the everyday so seamlessly that a frog coughing up a ring seems as ordinary as a rainstorm. As readers come to know Sally and Gillian — as well as Sally’s daughters Kylie and Antonia, who mirror their aunt and mother — the characters’ preternatural qualities are simply part and parcel of who they are.

Sally and Gillian also both find another type of magic — love. Whatever their paranormal powers, the Owenses prove as human as everyone else in matters of the heart.


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