Posted in Sunday Spotlight

Sunday Spotlight! Alice Hoffman.

Last month I started a new feature on the blog where I shine a spotlight on one of my favourite authors. I feature the books I most enjoy from their back catalogue and in October I’d hoped to feature four authors who write books that are spooky, sinister, or magical in some way, hoping to give you some interesting Halloween reads. These featured everything from the evils that men do, to families of witches, cunning fairies, strange powers and other ghostly goings on. However, last weekend it didn’t happen because my other October evil crept up on me. I have MS and I always have an autumn relapse. I was just starting to pick up, but had a very dodgy weekend. So I’m bringing you last Sundays author today instead that’s Alice Hoffman. I’ve featured her book Blue Diary on Throwback Thursday before, but that’s a rare magic free novel. Magic realism flows through most of Hoffman’s works. Some of the strangest include a woman falling in love with a magical talking heron, angels descending to earth, a family of women who can see the future, a golem made from river mud protecting a girl fleeing the Nazis, a man struck by lightning leaving a pattern on his skin and a mermaid girl living in a freak show at Coney Island. However, for most people it’s the Practical Magic book, or the film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman as two sisters coming to terms with their heritage as witches, that first comes to mind. This October sees the publication of the fourth and final book in the series, The Rules of Magic. So, I thought it was perfect timing to feature the whole Owens family series in chronological order.

Despite being the most recent novel in the series, Magic Lessons is actually the first in the series chronologically. I was lucky enough to have a preview copy of this novel and reviewed it only last October. Maria is found as a baby by wise woman Hannah Owens, who brings her up in the old ways. Maria learns how to grow a healing garden, to use herbs for ailments of body and mind, and help women with problems caused by love. However, Maria’s power isn’t just learned. She has the mark of a blood witch from her birth mother, and has been chosen by her familiar Cadin who is a crow. Maria feels she must be the result of a woman being fooled by love and vows that she will never be taken in by a man. Tragically, Maria’s adopted mother Hannah is burned as a witch and Maria knows she must run to save her life. She then meets her mother and birth father, and realising there is no room in their love for a third person she takes a gift of red boots from them and sails to the island of Curacao where she has been sold into servitude for a period of five years. Here, her vow against love will be tested. Taking us through the dangerous years of the 17th Century, where Puritanical communities like Salem in Massachusetts were whipped to hysteria, and would not suffer a witch to live. Hoffman’s prequel to Practical Magic takes us back to the beginnings of the Owens family and the complicated relationship between their power and their very human need to be loved.

This was a thoughtful and atmospheric origins story for a family many fans have come to love. I think the strength of this series is in that combination of the mystical and the flawed human aspects of these women. Despite their powers Maria, her mother Rebecca and her daughter Faith experience the highs and lows of every woman’s life – the changes of adolescence, falling in love with the wrong man and the right one, motherhood, illness and ageing. I felt emotional when Maria saw her ‘mother figure’ Hannah murdered by men who feared her, when she realised the man she loved didn’t really exist, and when she lost Cadin her loyal companion. These women’s fight to be accepted and even acknowledged for their skills is a fight that continues today as we fight for women’s rights to equal pay, to save reproductive rights and to be seen as more than sexual objects. Their fight to stay alive is still echoed in our fight to stop child brides, exploitation of young girls and domestic abuse. This was a series coming full circle, as we see the formation of that mistrust of love that shapes Jet Owens’s journey or that sees Gillian Owens constantly pick the wrong man. I really enjoyed being back with these strong, powerful women once more.

This is the second in the series and my personal favourite of the four books. We meet the family on the cusp of the 1960’s in New York, where Susanna Owens has three very unique children, two sisters and a brother. Franny has deep red hair and the palest skin, which make her distinctive, but she’s also very difficult. Jet is so beautiful but terribly shy, and has the magical ability to read people’s thoughts. Vincent is trouble, from the moment he was born. Susanna knows that the Owens girls are unlucky in love and lays down the law to save them from heartbreak. She also wants to save them from the magical heritage: no walking in moonlight; no red shoes; have nothing black whether it’s crows, cats or clothes; no candles; no books about magic and most definitely no falling in love. Yet family secrets are still uncovered, back in the Massachusetts town where the Owens women have been scapegoats for anything that goes wrong. Aunt Isabelle doesn’t care what people think and the children open up for the first time to the truth of who they are. The two girls will become the fabulous aunts in Practical Magic and Vincent leaves an unexpected legacy. I loved the mix of ordinary teenage growing pains with the twist of something supernatural, and the magic even us mortals feel when we fall in love.

The Owens girls, who live in the strange house on the edge of the town, were always treated as different by the children and adults living alongside them. Gillian and Sally lived with their elderly aunts who did nothing to dissuade the townsfolk of their suspicions that witches lived among them. One look at the turrets on their house, the herd of black cats, and the aunt’s love potions would tell you there’s a possibility of magic. Unfortunately for the girls, the aunt’s freedom of expression has been their prison; schoolyard pointing, taunts and whispers have followed them through their childhood. The girls responded to this in different ways. Gillian ran away and became the beautiful, mysterious stranger always passing through and always falling in love with the wrong man. In losing the magic that was her birthright, she’s fallen for the charms of men and the magic of attraction. Sally disappeared too, but into a marriage with a respectable man in the hope of being ordinary and accepted. Now she has two girls and is determined they won’t have the same childhood she did. Then Gillian turns up, still running, but this time back to the family she left behind. She’s fallen in love with a very bad man and needs the help and comfort of her sister. Will Gillian’s troubles bring the sister’s closer? It might even bring their very elderly aunts back into their orbit. However, it also brings a detective into their midst. He could change their lives, in a very negative way if they let him. Yet the magic of love hasn’t finished with the Owens girls and maybe magic is the answer to all of their problems.

This is the last instalment of the series and involves the family, after the events of Practical Magic. Sally’s girls are now teenagers and the aunts are very elderly. However, it’s difficult knowing your time on earth is coming to an end. Aunt Jet has heard the Deathwatch Beetle ticking – a sure sign she only has a week left. However, the Owens family curse is at work and Jet isn’t the only one to hear it. The family must come together, for Jet’s sake but also to save another life. Much to the aunts surprise, a long lost brother returns to help. The family roam from Paris to London and deep into the English countryside where Maria Owens took her first tentative steps into magic. The youngest girls start to learn how much their Sally has kept from them, in terms of their heritage but also each tragic, family secret too. Kylie in particular relishes learning who she is and starts to dabble in some dark arts. Franny embarks on a journey of realisation, she will do anything for this family and Sally Owens will do anything for those she loves too. Magic comes in many forms and this is a very human type of magic – the magic of love within a family. This novel’s strength is in those well-known characters coming full circle and a new generation to explore. A magical tale of love and family lore passing from mothers to daughters.

.

Alice Hoffman was born in New York City on March 16, 1952, and grew up on Long Island. After graduating from high school in 1969, she attended Adelphi University, from which she received a BA, and then received a Mirrellees Fellowship to the Stanford University Creative Writing Center, which she attended in 1973 and 74, receiving an MA in creative writing. She currently lives in Boston. Hoffman’s first novel, Property Of, was written at the age of twenty-one, while she was studying at Stanford, and published shortly thereafter by Farrar Straus and Giroux. She credits her mentor, professor and writer Albert J. Guerard, and his wife, the writer Maclin Bocock Guerard, for helping her to publish her first short story in the magazine Fiction. Editor Ted Solotaroff then contacted her to ask if she had a novel, at which point she quickly began to write what was to become Property Of, a section of which was published in Mr. Solotaroff’s magazine, American Review.

Since that remarkable beginning, Alice Hoffman has become one of the most distinguished novelists. She has published over thirty novels, three books of short fiction, and eight books for children and young adults. Her novel, Here on Earth, an Oprah’s Book Club choice, was a modern reworking of some of the themes of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece Wuthering Heights. Practical Magic was made into a Warner Brothers film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman. Her novel, At Risk, which concerns a family dealing with AIDS, can be found on the reading lists of many universities, colleges and secondary schools. Hoffman’s advance from Local Girls, a collection of inter-related fictions about love and loss on Long Island, was donated to help create the Hoffman Breast Center at Mt. Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, MA. Hoffman has written a number of novels for young adults, including Aquamarine, Green Angel, and Green Witch. In 2007 Little Brown published the teen novel Incantation, a story about hidden Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, which Publishers Weekly chose as one of the best books of the year.

Aside from the Practical Magic series, the novels I would recommend highly are:

Blue Diary – a picture perfect family in a small town is torn apart when Jory’s husband is accused of rape and murder.

The Marriage of Opposites – this stunning novel explores the difficult relationship between the painter Camille Pissarro and his mother. Set on the island of Sao Tomae this novel is an incredibly visual book, with stunning descriptions of Pissarro’s island home akin to impressionistic paintings.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things – set in a Coney Island freak show at the beginning of the 20th Century, this is the story of a girl who is shown as a mermaid by her father. As her confidence and self-belief grow and she falls in love, we also see the birth of Manhattan as we see it today.

Posted in Throwback Thursday

Throwback Thursday! Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman.

When Ethan Ford fails to show up for work on a brilliant summer morning, none of his neighbors would guess that for more than thirteen years, he has been running from his past. His true nature has been locked away, as hidden as his real identity. But sometimes locks spring open, and the devastating truths of Ethan Ford’s history shatter the small-town peace of Monroe, affecting family and friends alike.

As regular readers know, Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors and while Blue Diary isn’t the first of her books I read, it’s definitely one of the best. Ethan and Jorie are one of those golden couples that probably annoy the hell out of everyone around them. They are a beautiful pair, with a lovely son, Collie. Jorie is the girl next door, the girl you’d ring if you needed advice or a shoulder to cry on, and the parent to ring if you need muffins baking for the school’s Christmas fair. Ethan is the neighbour you ring if you need help putting up a shelf, or if you wake up in the night and think someone is prowling in your garden. They are the cornerstone of this community.

Now, the police are at the door. Ethan Ford’s life as an irreproachable family man and heroic volunteer fireman has come to an end—and Jorie Ford’s life is coming apart. Some of the residents of Monroe are rallying behind Ethan. But others, including his wife and son, are wondering what remains true when so much is shown to be false—and how capable we really are of change.

Hoffman writes small towns and the dynamics of the people in them, so well. If Jorie and Ethan were in the Instagram age every photo would have #relationshipgoals in the replies underneath. Jorie’s world falls apart when Ethan is arrested and she is sure it must be a mistake. She knows this man, down to his bones. Surely she would know if he was hiding a dark secret? The novel invites us to ask the question: how well can we really know the person who’s head is on the pillow next to ours at night? Another thing that occurred to me as I was re-reading the novel, was how much the internet has changed our daily lives, into something we use like a daily diary. Originally published in 2001, when many people I knew didn’t have an internet connection in their home, my re-read of the book made me think about cancel culture and how much of people’s lives are now documented for all to see. Now, a long forgotten tasteless joke, inappropriate comment, or photographed drunken escapade, can be found years after the fact and be commented upon and criticised by millions. Applying the standards of today’s society, no matter how important and hard won they may be, to yesterday’s behaviour can be devastating for the individual involved. Even if their own views have now changed for the better, an individual can lose their livelihood, relationships, and potentially their whole life over one incident. It is an incredible power we hold in our hands when joining an internet ‘pile-on’.

Jorie only experiences this on a small town scale, but it’s effect is no less devastating. As it becomes known that Ethan has been arrested, to be interviewed on charges of the rape and murder of a young girl, neighbours and friends are shocked, but have to consider their response. Obviously the first question on everyone’s lips is whether Ethan is guilty or not, but beyond that: did Jorie know about this? Is she guilty by association? Is this his only crime? Can they still be friends with Jorie? Jorie has so many questions for Ethan, but other issues are swirling around in her mind. How will they cope financially? Will she lose her support network? Most importantly she wonders how to protect Collie from knowing about the accusations. This doesn’t just affect her and Ethan, this could blight Collie’s whole life too. With all this in mind, as well as needing to hear the truth, Jorie is wondering whether her marriage can survive this? Should it? When Ethan confesses to the crime, her world and her trust in her husband is shattered.

Ethan’s only defence is that he had no intention to rape or kill the young girl. His claim is that during consensual sex, he accidentally choked her and then decided to run, worrying that no one would believe his innocence. I wasn’t sure I did. He packed up and set up a new life for himself in Massachusetts where he met Jorie. Even if we believe his story, the injustice that he could choose to rebuild his life while his victim couldn’t really stayed with me. He had covered his tracks very well, until Collie’s 13 year old friend Kat, sees an e-fit of a suspect on television and rings the hotline to turn Ethan in. On one hand she feels it’s the right thing to do, but is sad about the effect this will have on Collie. I found it very surprising how many townsfolk were still willing to support and help Ethan, even after his confession. Jorie becomes more and more conflicted, then makes a decision to gain more information in an attempt to make peace with what has happened. She asks the victim’s brother if she can visit with him in Maryland. She needs to hear the context of the crime and the impact it had on the family involved.

There, Jorie gets a feel for the town and how this terrible act of violence was felt by all the residents. The victim’s name is Rachael and James takes Jorie up to Rachael’s room which has never been changed since her death. With Jorie the reader takes in the cuddly toys, the posters, and the framed photos of Rachael riding and with friends. This is a little girl’s room and when James talks about trying to scrub the bloodstain from the wall behind the bed, Ethan’s crime really comes home to the reader and to Jorie. The break also gives her some much needed breathing space, away from the pressure of the court case and the well-meaning supporters of Ethan, but also from Ethan himself. When she’s near him the love she has felt for him this past 13 years threatens to overwhelm her and the reality of Ethan’s crime. Here she has time to think clearly about what it is she has to forgive, before deciding whether she can. It isn’t just the crime itself, but the years of lies, as well as committing his life to her and starting a family knowing this was lurking in his past. He chose to have Collie with her, knowing that, if exposed, his crime would alter Collie’s life irreparably and leave him without a father. I found myself seeing a selfishness in these acts, but also in accepting help from the town seeking his acquittal and expecting Jorie to stand by him. Could the same selfishness, the wanting something and simply taking it, signal the real motive for his crime?

This is not a book about Ethan, nor is it a crime novel in the sense that we’re waiting for a murderer to be unmasked. This is more about the aftermath of violent crime for the family of the victim and the perpetrator. I think Hoffman does this very well. Her use of the victim’s diary as our way into her character is clever. We feel, alongside Jorie, for this sensitive girl falling in love for the first time. Her innocence in how she thinks of a relationship with Ethan is heartbreaking since we know the outcome. I loved the way Hoffman aligns her innocence with nature and gives us layers of description using flowers, trees, seasons and food to help us understand these characters and embed them within a place. We root for these people, drawn into a web of lies that is still being spun to protect Ethan. When we finally reach the section where the rape and murder takes place, it has a huge impact and made me cry on first reading, for all the victims of this crime. Ultimately, our ending hinges on Jorie’s ability to forgive and even if does, does forgiving mean we have to forget?

Meet The Author


Alice Hoffman is the author of thirty works of fiction, including Practical Magic, The Red Garden, The Dovekeepers and, most recently,The Museum of Extraordinary Things. She lives in Boston. Her latest novel The Book of Magic will be the fourth in the Practical Magic series abs will be released on 5th October 2021. Visit her website: http://www.alicehoffman.com