Twenty two years after the publication of Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman fired up the ol’ Owens Family Cauldron to brew up (I apologize for NOTHING) the story of “The Aunts”. Before Jet and Franny were kooky caregivers with cupboards full of teeth and dove hearts, they were kids squirming under the overbearing but uninvolved eyes of their midcentury modern parents.
Necessarily, when re-approaching a well-defined but of-its-time creation, one must get a little creative with facts and figures. Practical Magic was already a bit screwy with time, dates, and culture; the ancestral Massachusetts home that was built by Maria Owens in 1620 is described, in all ways, as being Victorian at the very earliest. Towering attics, terraced porches, wrought iron fenceposts do not a colonial home make! I can (and will!) get persnickety about setting and timing details, which run absolutely rampant in The Rules of Magic, but my true issue takes hold within the characters themselves.
Twenty two years after the original is plenty of time to re-think and re-work some bits and bobs around the Owens family, and while I have few problems with a little fictional revisionist history here and there, I struggled to connect with this book because the characters themselves flip and flop wildly between personal tenets. Franny and Jet frequently switch personalities, ideologies, abilities, and desires. Throw in beloved baby brother Vincent and third-cousin Alice and you’ve got yourself a twisted mess of a story! The story also spans roughly forty years, and it spans them Forest Gump style: was there a significant moment in American History on the horizon? Sure- and here’s how the Owens are involved!
Hoffman wants it all, coherence be damned. Amounts of money that would be astronomical in the fifties and sixties are tossed about like pocket change, family secrets are immediately shared with anyone within hearing distance, neighborhoods worth of people rely on the kindness and remedies of the Owens and treat them with reverence and respect also hate them with a passion, extremely traumatic deaths are sometimes filler and sometimes life-altering events (but no- not the deaths mentioned in Practical Magic- those ones don’t matter anymore! MAGIC!), and 14 year old boys wander the city in drunken stupors having copious amounts of sex with 37 year old women- but apparently that is not a problem? YIKES!
The first rule of magic, if you are wondering, is do no harm. The siblings make money providing harm for others and themselves. The Owens family is cUrSeD, but that does not stop anyone from pushing dead ahead into it none the less, no matter how many promises are made, charms are created, and spells are spoken. There are consequences aplenty, but none of the consequences spring directly from actions. People swear to protect each other from magic and secrets, but cave immediately when asked and spill their guts without a second thought. So many older family members are going to protect the kids from their “true nature”, but ask them 10 pages later and not only will they let down their guard, they’ll hold the door open into oblivion.
While the magic of Practical Magic was, well, practical, the magic here is capital-M MAGIC. Magic here is very real, definitely witchcraft, and passed on genetically like, oh I don’t know, the Force and midichlorians. The homespun matrilineal traditions of Practical Magic are cast aside for tomes of spells collected from dangerous warlocks. Yawn.
I was tempted to throw out a three-star rating for this one, but the emotional response that was wrung from me came only from connections to characters that I have already known, and not from true suspense and world-building. Of course I cried hearing the origins, again, of Jillian and Sally’s orphan-hood! Really, I found this book exhausting. It was overwrought and under baked. It was convoluted, unclear, and worked terribly hard to undo the work already done in Practical Magic. I re-read PM to prepare for this book and for the new pre-prequal, but I think I will be leaving this series alone. I am remembering now what sent Alice Hoffman and me on our separate paths; we’re better off apart.