I first read Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic in middle school, and I’ve read it multiple times over the last fifteen years. The film version — “adaptation” would be giving it too much credit — was a disappointment. While the film has gradually grown on me as a relic of late '90s witchy pop culture (which certain corners of the internet have embraced wholeheartedly), it simply never captured the heart of the source material. In many ways, The Rules of Magic feels more like a prequel to the film than the novel.
Prequels are a tricky form to pull off under the best circumstances, even more so when the original story was written over two decades ago. Essentially reverse engineered, they can easily take on a paint-by-numbers quality rather than a more natural narrative flow. The Rules of Magic attempts to flesh out characters that were almost incidental in Practical Magic, continuing the saga of the unconventional Owens family by telling the story of Frances and Bridget Owens, known as Franny and Jet, the aunts who reluctantly raise Sally and Gillian in Practical Magic. Set primarily in New York City in the 1960s, it relies as much on real locations and big historical events (Vietnam, the Stonewall riots, etc) as it does on the established events of Practical Magic to shape the story. This reliance on preexisting events — whether fictional or real — constrains the story in odd ways and makes it feel fundamentally different from the original novel, even when it makes direct connections to the characters and locations of the earlier story. There is also the addition of Vincent, the lone male Owens in the matrilineal family line, someone never mentioned in Practical Magic, yet often the character most relevant to the major events of Rules of Magic.
Hoffman chooses to ground the story with a lot of historical minutia about witchcraft and real world events; there are several pages of exposition devoted to witch trial and the practice of the craft. This seeming desire to tether the story more to reality (something I’ve noticed in nearly all of Hoffman’s work since her historical novel The Dovekeepers) keeps Rules from engaging with its own mythos. Part of the charm — the magic, if you will — of Practical Magic is its focus on the experiences of women, as outsiders and as part of a long legacy of other rule-breaking women. There were fantasy elements and romanticized characters, but it never sacrificed the internal for the external, which is perhaps the greatest weakness in Rules. The story itself is enjoyable, especially if you want to know Frances and Bridget Owens as people rather than a dual cipher constantly referred to simply as “The Aunts.” Anyone who enjoyed Practical Magic will have fun connecting the dots between the two novels and meeting more of the Owens clan. It will perhaps work even better for those who will read both for the first time. In the end, it lacks some of the soul of its predecessor and can’t quite make up the loss by simply adding more concrete details.
In case you couldn’t tell, most of my issues with Rules stem mostly from my long, somewhat emotional relationship with Practical Magic (the novel) and its particular style rather than any real failure on Hoffman’s part. Twenty years is a very long gap between books; I doubt any writer is the same person with the same interests after that much time. So I know where most of my ambivalence about Rules comes from. But another question I have asked frequently while reading Hoffman’s novels is less easy to pin down: Is Practical Magic, and by extension The Rules of Magic, feminist? It’s something I think about more and more as I revisit books that I read as a teenager, before I was really aware of feminism or realized how poorly women were often portrayed in a lot of my favorite books, even (or especially) in books written by women. On one hand, the focus on the matrilineal Owens family and their history of defiance and (possibly) witchcraft has always suggested a certain level of feminist rebellion — after all, accusing women of being witches has long been a way to single out and punish those who don’t fit the traditional feminine mold. On the other hand, both novels are fixated on romantic love in a way that sometimes undermines the focus on sisterhood and female experience that otherwise define the characters. Practical Magic, despite its title and the magical realism that infuses the story, avoids taking a stance on whether the Owens women are really witches. The film version is much more literal about witchcraft and so is Rules, which is why it feels more like an extension of the film. This literalness has a strange effect on the story, making it less about the internal lives of the characters and their struggles in the world and more about the contrivances of plot that will allow Rules to retroactively set the stage for Practical Magic.
After a lot of internal back-and-forth over the years, I don’t think Practical Magic is overtly feminist — it relies a little too much on romantic love and happily-ever-afters for that — but it certainly centers female lives and relationships at the heart of the story, especially the bonds between sisters and mother-daughter relationships. In Rules, Franny and Jet live their entire lives together and see each other through every major milestone, but their personal stories often feel undermined by the emphasis on plot and Hoffman’s need to tie the Owens story to both history and her wider fictional universe. Ultimately, Practical Magic and The Rules of Magic are two very different books, often connected by substance but separated a little too much by style to feel like cohesive parts of the same story.
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Amber Troska is a copy editor, freelance writer, and voracious reader from Virginia. Her writing and reviewing work focuses on the intersection of politics and feminism in literature and pop culture. She is also the founding editor of the Medium.com publication Postcards from the Resistance. Follow her blog atroskity.booklikes.com.