THE RULES OF MAGIC, by Alice Hoffman. Simon & Schuster, 367 pp., $27.99.
Alice Hoffman takes good care of her fans. She has already loaded their bookshelves with more than 30 adult and YA novels, and now delivers a gift sure to enchant — a prequel to “Practical Magic,” the 1995 tale of sisters Sally and Gillian Owens (Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in the movie). “The Rules of Magic” gives the back story on the old, witchy aunties (Stockard Channing and Dianne Wiest in the movie) that the girls are sent to live with after their parents are killed in an accident.
The new chapter of the saga starts with Susanna Owens. Though descended from a line of witches who first arrived in Massachusetts in 1680, Susanna has turned her back on the past and is determined that her children know nothing about their occult bloodline. Raising them with her psychiatrist husband on the Upper East Side of New York in the late 1950s, she lays down a raft of rules designed to keep them normal: no candles, no Ouija boards, no wearing black, no cats, no crows.
It doesn’t work at all. Each of the gray-eyed children has a gift — the eldest, redheaded Frances, draws birds to her hand from the time she’s in the crib; clairvoyant Bridget, called Jet for her black hair, has “the sight”; the baby of the family, Vincent, radiates a charm so irresistible a nurse in the maternity ward where he was born tried to kidnap him. (As two elderly sisters but no uncle appear in “Practical Magic,” Hoffmanites will immediately feel concerned about Vincent’s welfare.)
Unbeknownst to their mother, the Owens’s unusual childhood includes experiments in levitation and studies in a hoary tome called The Magus, as well as more earthly investigations: “While therapy was in progress, [in their father’s basement office] Vincent often sneaked down to the coat closet to search a patient’s pockets for cash, mints, and Valium. Then all three children would lie on the kitchen floor, relaxed by the little yellow pills Vincent had found, sucking on Brach’s Ice Blue mints as they listened in to the sobbing confessions that filtered up through the heating vent.”
The final blow to Susanna’s efforts to keep a lid on the otherworldly comes when the children are invited to spend the summer with their unabashedly witchy Aunt Isabelle in a small town outside Boston. Despite their father’s insistence that “Massachusetts must be avoided at all costs,” the teenagers head off to meet their true destiny.
At Aunt Isabelle’s, they are plunged into the life and lore of their line. They watch with fascination as, for the price of a half-dozen eggs or a diamond ring, their aunt dispenses remedies for flu and insomnia as well as potions and practices for snatching someone else’s husband, weaving a web to disguise wrongdoings or pulling someone back from the brink of despair. “You know who you are,” says their aunt. “And I suggest you never deny it.”
Unfortunately, part of who they are involves a terrible curse. Beware of love, wrote their ancestor Maria Owens in a journal they find in a locked room in the local library. Any man who falls in love with an Owens faces “ruination,” even death. The remainder of the novel follows the siblings’ attempts to ignore or outwit the curse.
At 14, Vincent is 6-foot-4 and carries a guitar slung over his shoulder. He is already breaking hearts, including that of an Owens cousin, April. At the same time, he blithely carries on affairs with a neighbor in her late 30s and most of the rest of the female population of the town, caring not a whit for any of them.
Franny thinks she’s hardhearted, too, but actually she has already met the love of her life, a boy back at school in New York. So that’s not good. And as for the lovely Jet — she provides the first illustration of the seriousness of the curse when handsome 17-year-old twins meet their deaths in pursuit of her. Despite this obvious warning, she meets her true love at their funeral.
This can’t go well, and it doesn’t, but the story unfolds in romantic and magical ways against the backdrop of 1960s, with the Stonewall riot, LSD in Central Park, Bob Dylan and Vietnam all making appearances. Hoffman will keep you guessing until the very end of the book how the “Practical Magic” generation fits in, a clever, heartbreaking finale.