Alice Hoffman dips deeper into the bloodline of the love-cursed Owens women, those witches around whom Practical Magic (mainly about modern sisters Sally and Gillian) and The Rules of Magic (about aunts Jet and Frances’ childhoods in the 1960s) revolve. Magic Lessons takes us all the way to the beginning of the story and tells us what really happened to Maria Owens, the Salem witch referenced in both books, who invoked a curse upon the man who betrayed her and made her a part of the infamous witch trials. The curse that blew back upon the entire Owens line, following Jet, Frances, Sally and Gillian into their adulthoods and affecting the lives of their children as the men in their lives are doomed, one by one, to die. Unfortunately, the moral here feels too simplistic, and while I enjoyed watching Maria develop into a woman, her foolhardiness made her difficult to root for.
Maria, it’s worth noting, wasn’t a biological Owens. A foundling discovered abandoned in an English turnip field, she was taken in by Hannah Owens. Maria soon shows a talent for magic and Hannah proudly trains her, even though doing so puts them both in danger of being accused of witchcraft. When Hannah burns for the craft, Maria is spirited away by her biological mother and father, who see her off to a safer world far away – first to Curaco, where her magical tinctures win her a following, where she meets John Hathorne, a Puritan she loves unwisely and who impregnates her. When she follows him to Boston with their new baby Faith she soon learns that John has other obligations – including being a trial judge during the Salem Witch Trials – and Massachusetts’ Essex County is no kinder than its British counterpart.
Maria continues to live on the outskirts of Salem, suspected all the while of being a witch, while resuming her affair with John. She soon learns his heart is unfaithful, and when she attempts magical revenge on him he calls the committee down upon her head. When Maria is executed for her crimes, Faith seeks revenge – but is Maria truly dead? And will Faith be eaten alive by her quest?
Magic Lessons has its positives: a wonderful mother/daughter relationship which centers the book the way sister-based relationships normally do in this series. Maria and Faith are two entirely different women with distinct personalities, and watching them change and grow is a revelation.
But Magic Lessons retroactively complicates the plot of the previous Practical Magic volumes due to the fact that Maria’s story must now have a happy ending. Ergo the curse she laid on John must somehow be softened, and that is a disappointment that provides a groan-worthy plot loophole. Sally and Jet and all the others suffered at the hands of this curse and for what?
As always, Hoffman does a good job plumbing the past, introducing her readers to seventeenth century Salem, Curaco in the same time period, and Essex in England. Her message is, as always, solidly feminist, and the book introduces us to figures often unheralded in the history of the period, such as Jewish pirates who existed in Curaco in the 1600s.
Magic Lessons is a solid volume that doesn’t do credit enough to Hoffman’s previous works, and yet it’s compelling and beautifully told. For that it earns a recommendation.
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