Magic Lessons

Written by Alice Hoffman
Review by Kristen McDermott

Hoffman previously revisited the beloved world and characters she created for the blockbuster hit Practical Magic when she gave readers the life stories of the Owens witches’ charismatic aunts in The Rules of Magic, set in the 1960s. She reaches further back in time for Magic Lessons, telling the tale of the originator of the witchy Owens bloodline, Maria, a foundling in 17th-century England, who makes her way to Salem, Massachusetts. Generations of Owens witches struggle with the curse originally laid by Maria on the men they love; fans of the novels will enjoy the clues appearing in this prequel to the adventures they have already enjoyed in the first two books.

Hoffman’s style is, as always, a unique mixture of fairy tale and domestic detail; she often interrupts the narrative with lists of herbal charms and cures as her characters develop their skills over time. Her descriptions of the landscapes of England, Curaçao, and Massachusetts are lovely, making up for the fact that in this novel, her characters can be hard to feel close to. Maria is presciently aware of the harmful consequences of her choices and makes them anyway, which gets a bit frustrating with repetition. Hoffman’s intrusive narrative voice instructing us to see her misadventures as a grand pattern of fate makes sense in the context of the other two novels, but can be emotionally distancing.

Still, it’s an entertaining story, and impressively researched, particularly the evocation of 17th-century New York. Along with intriguing details about the origins of the various boroughs and landmarks of the city, Hoffman includes massive amounts of period plant and animal folklore, and also entangles in the Owens’ women’s history John Hathorne, one of the real-life Salem Witch Trial judges and the great-grandfather of author Nathaniel Hawthorne. Hoffman’s expert blend of magic and realism makes for a satisfying read.