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The Rules of Magic
by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster, $16.00 TPB, 366pp
Published: June 2018

This is such a sweet story of magic.  I’m not a cryer but I got a lump in my throat more than once; especially at the end.

The three Owens children (Vincent, Franny and Jet) have grown up with gifts they don’t understand; gifts their mother denies – for their safety.  But when Franny, the eldest, gets an invitation to visit an aunt they didn’t know; their mother allows all three to spend the summer.  It was obvious she knew her children would be changed by the experience but she must have felt, in her heart, that they needed it.

Their Aunt Isabelle lives in a small town and is revered and feared as a witch; something she does nothing to discourage.  Life with Aunt Isabelle is unlike anything the children could have imagined.  There were no rules; they were allowed to find their own limits.  But until the time Franny spent all night making soap with Aunt Isabelle, she had denied her own abilities.  That night changed everything for her.  She had always been able to call birds to her but that summer she acquired a large crow as a familiar.  She and Jet also developed a healthy respect for the family curse.

Vincent, a handsome and charismatic fourteen-year-old discovered that no girl or woman could deny him anything.  He made the most of it, as one might expect, yet found every experience meant less than nothing to him.  Most times he’d forget the girl the moment she left out the door. One can only imagine the number of broken hearts…and hymens…that summer.  But when an older, married woman became obsessed with him, Vincent finally had to ask his Aunt to help break the enchantment.  Understanding his power was Vincent’s gift to himself.

Jet, the middle child, was always the most sensitive and kind-hearted of the three.  That summer she found her life’s love in the form of the Reverend’s son, Levi.  But in the vein of so many tragedies, the Reverend’s family and the Owenses had been feuding enemies for generations – no one really remembering why.

The children had always known – from their mother – that love was the curse that lay over their family.  They were never to fall in love as the object of their love was sure to be destroyed.  Franny’s very best friend and true love was Haylin; and her life was spent either madly in love with him or rejecting him – in the hopes he’d be spared the curse.  Vincent wasn’t worried about the curse as he didn’t believe he was able to love anyone; he lived for his music but couldn’t find anything to fill his life or his heart when he wasn’t playing.  Drugs and alcohol were a fine way to diminish the emptiness.  Jet was the only one who followed her heart and tragedy was a given.

This is a story of magic, yes, but more a story of love.  All the myriad ways that love surprises us, disappoints us, hurts us and colors our lives.  I loved how Franny and Haylin found a way around the curse, right up to the bittersweet end.  I was heartsore for Jet but warmed by the way life finally gave her closure.  And Vincent…his way was the most precarious and sad.  And I loved how the Owens family, including their Aunt and their cousins, intertwined with each other and even Levi’s family.

This takes place from the 1950s to the 60s, but the author takes no particular pains to place us very strongly in that era. Most of the time, I felt these events could happen at any time.  But the Vietnam war had to figure prominently in the story; especially in view of the draft… Funny enough, this story actually gave me more insight into conscientious objectors – those for whom I’ve had little sympathy.  And, by extension, Quakers (not that there are any in this story); just that I gained an appreciation of the real pain that some experience at the thought of harming another.

It was a lovely and relaxing interlude with bittersweet sadness.  A really nice read on a rainy day.  ~~ Catherine Book

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