The Rules of Magic
This is a difficult book to review, since I’m reluctant to compare it too much to Practical Magic, to which it stands as a prequel. The Rules of Magic is completely its own book, separate from the original story, although the two books are connected by virtue of being about the same family.
If you haven’t read Practical Magic you can easily read The Rules of Magic first. If you’ve only seen the movie of the former and plan to dive into either, prepare to be surprised. The movie veers away from the feel of the novel, although I maintain that it is possibly one of the rare movies that actually outshines its book. That said, if you’re expecting silly songs and midnight margaritas, you won’t find them in The Rules of Magic.
First and foremost, Rules is the story of the Owens family, and they are a family haunted by death. Their ancestor, Maria Owens, placed a curse on her descendants, so that whomever they love will die. It has plagued the family for generations as loved ones have died and in some cases the Owens family member who loved them has died as well. As a result, Susanna Owens is raising her children away from the family and all the magic and heartbreak that comes with being an Owens. It is 1960’s New York and Franny, Jet (short for Bridget), and Vincent Owens discover on their own why their mother has raised them with so many seemingly nonsensical rules, such as never to wear red shoes. She is trying to give them a normal upbringing, but after some strange coincidences surrounding each of the children, it becomes apparent that there is something unusual about each of them. They are able to fully learn of their family legacy when their aunt in Massachusetts calls them for a summer visit.
Each child has their own approach to the family curse and the family gift. Franny is the practical one who vows she won’t fall in love, so she can never be hurt. Jet is more willing to embrace love and suffers deeply because of that. Vincent becomes enamored with magic and his budding abilities, but his desire to deny who he truly is, a gay man, eats at him.
I felt the most connected to Franny’s love story. She tries so hard not to fall for her childhood friend Hay, and their relationship faces decades of up and down, happy and heartbreak. Franny is also the most mature of the siblings, struggling to protect and care for the people around her, even if she thinks herself cold or troublesome. I never fully connected to Jet and her boyfriend, Levi, although my heart went out to her in her time of grief. Vincent’s part of the tale is, overall, the least immersive. I liked that Hoffman approaches the issue of homosexuality in the sixties in such a visceral way, but the relationship between Vincent and William relationship came on so quickly, and the end of his part in the book confused me so much, that I struggled to form an emotional connection to him.
I did really enjoy seeing the events of the sixties and seventies play out through the lives of these magical people. At times, the Stonewall Riots, Civil Rights Movement, Nixon, and the Vietnam War, as well as the music scene and Summer of Love, pass through or play a part in the Owens’ lives. It was like a reminder that, even with the mysterious powers their family holds, there are still tragedies and injustices that are too large to be conquered.
With all that said, if you want a book with an expedient plot, The Rules of Magic is not for you. Rather, Hoffman meanders through the lives of the Owens family, moving forward in time at a sometimes slow, sometimes erratic pace. I struggled a little to maintain my grasp on how time was passing in the novel, and the historical events sometimes seemed like the only way to gauge the passage of time.
The end of the story brought a tear to my eye, and I was pleased that it led all the way up to the start of Practical Magic so we are able to see exactly how Sally and Gillian’s story begins. Although one might go into The Rules of Magic expecting, well, magic – and there is plenty – it is more the story of a family, with their sometimes tenuous connections to one another and of how they manage to survive the pain and hardship that seems inevitable.