The Re-Reading Project: Practical Magic

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in town. If a damp spring arrived, if cows in the pasture gave milk that was runny with blood, if a colt died of colic or a baby was born with a red birthmark stamped onto his cheek, everyone believed that fate must have been twisted, at least a little, by those women over on Magnolia Street. It didn’t matter what the problem was–lightning, or locusts, or a death by drowning. It didn’t matter if the situation could be explained by logic, or science, or plain bad luck. As soon as there was a hint of trouble or the slightest misfortune, people began pointing their fingers and placing blame.

Anytime I set rules or guidelines for myself, I always have to break them at some point. October is the month in which either the whole Re-Reading Project would derail, or I’d throw pretty much all the rules out of the window. It wasn’t supposed to be Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman this month. In fact, Practical Magic doesn’t technically fall within the parameters of the Re-Reading Project (books that have influenced me, which I originally read before the age of 16). I didn’t read Practical Magic till I was 17, so it breaks a crucial rule there, yet it was one of the *first* books that got added to my list, when I conceived the project last year. I just didn’t think about the fact that it didn’t obey the rule that I used to select *every other book* in the project. When I outlined the books I’d read, I slated Practical Magic for December, last, because I’m re-reading the books in roughly the order I originally read them, a nod to the fact I was ignoring (that this book didn’t follow my rules). Then, I considered swapping it for October, but I thought that was a little too cheesy. I mean, it’s a book about witches during October? I can do better than that, right?

Normally, I start reading each month’s book on the 1st, to give myself plenty of time for re-reading and reflection, no matter what may come as the month goes by. Some months, I’ve really needed all the time I could get. On October 1st, I was leaving Philadelphia and driving to Georgia and my copy of the book I was “supposed” to read in October was in storage. Why I didn’t bring this book along with all of the other books I hauled 3,000+ miles, when I knew I was “supposed” to read it, I’m not entirely sure. But, I know it wasn’t an accident. Even as I was packing for the residency in August, I was unconvinced that the book I was “supposed” to read in October was the right one. So I didn’t think about it and left it in storage.

As soon as I got back to New Orleans, I snagged the last three books for the Re-Reading Project from storage, including the book I was “supposed” to read this month. Looking at them all side-by-side, I was tempted to read the book for November (because it’s the shortest and I was overwhelmed getting back to my real life), but I decided to leave it for the craziness of next month (NaNoWriMo season). And I looked at Practical Magic and thought, “hmmm, I’d really love to read that right now.” But I reminded myself that it was too “on the nose” for October and I started reading the book I was “supposed” to read.

Now, I love this book. It’s a great book. I own several copies because it’s somewhat rare and it’s so special to me. There are even a couple of cool parallels between the book I was “supposed” to read in October and my experience at the residency. But, because I started late and I was slammed as soon as I got back to town, and for reasons I didn’t want to face, I was only 46 pages into this 400+ book by the time October was two-thirds gone. I started to think I wasn’t going to be able to finish the book and the re-reading review on time. And then, finally, I threw the rules and the “supposed tos” out the window and I started re-reading Practical Magic.

That’s a very long intro, without having actually talked about the book itself. Well, here we go.

Like the book mentioned above, I have had several copies of Practical Magic. First a battered blue paperback with a black cat on the cover. Later, a pretty trade paperback copy. Fairly recently, I bought this gorgeous hardback copy and this is the one I read this time around.

Practical Magic I saw the movie first, in the theater when it came out in 1998 (I was 16). It came out, appropriately enough, in October. My family had just moved to Louisiana in July and I was miserable. I hated Louisiana, I was angry that my parents moved me halfway through high school and I’d had to leave all of my friends behind. My heart was broken because I didn’t know when I’d ever see the boy I thought I loved again. And I was channeling all of these feelings into a novel about a teenage witch (my first finished novel, which will probably never see the light of day). So, as you might imagine, Practical Magic was a movie that felt very much for me. It’s a movie I still love, a perfect storm of amazing actors, music from Stevie Nicks and a zeitgeisty moment.

Maybe this is where my odd preference comes from, to watch the movie first if I know a book is being adapted. To this day, I find it fairly easy to love a movie and a book as separate creations, but only if I watch the movie first (with rare exceptions). Because, as much love as I have for the movie Practical Magic, it has very little in common with the book. The book has been changed in the ways Hollywood loves to change original material (i.e., in some smart ways, but mostly for flash). I’d probably hate it if I’d read and loved the book first. It would be very hard not to.

The book is subtle, lean and incredibly detailed at the same time. It can cover years in a few pages. Sally Owens’ first husband Michael is only in the book for 6 pages, but he feels very real, a fleshed-out character. It’s a book about the certainty of “old wives” cures and the uncertainty of love. While the movie may take delight in depicting the Owens women as witches, in the book, they are only ever referred to that way by other people and not really directly. They are women who know things and who can do and make things, using inherited knowledge of human behavior, anatomy, botany and husbandry. And while we so commonly understand these traits to be associated with witches, Hoffman never makes any of the magic in the book flashy or outlandish. It’s all possible, it’s all real, it’s all practical. The subtly is one of the best things about the book and that is almost entirely lost in the movie. I will say this, there is at least one aspect of the movie that I always think about whenever I think about the story – I’d forgotten it wasn’t in the book at all till now! Because the 1998 movie is such a product of its own time and it veered so far from the source material, I think it’s entirely possible for a the book to be adapted into a movie again, into a more faithful version that could be a good film in its own right. If I wanted to make more comparisons between the book and the movie, I could, but I’m going to focus on the book (and me) for the rest of this.

When I first read Practical Magic, I latched onto the young Sally and Gillian, and was bewildered when they were suddenly middle-aged women. I could no longer identify with Sally once she was the mother of two daughters, but instead, I transferred my feelings of kinship to the daughters, Antonia and Kylie. I thought I’d been in love when I first read this book, though my first love wouldn’t come for a few more years. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not dismissing that first emotion because I was young, but I choose to redefine it now that I understand more about what love feels like and what it can do. Which brings me to now, re-reading Practical Magic and realizing that I am only a few years younger than the adult Sally and Gillian are in the book. Suddenly, their younger selves and Sally’s teen daughters resonate with me only in a nostalgic way and the characters who come alive to me are the middle-aged women, worn out by grief and love, as they each learn new things about themselves and find love again. The wounds and scars that love inflicts and heals is the subtext of the book that I can translate now, as an adult woman who is suffering grief over lost love. When I first read the book, I could only identify with the characters whose phases I had undergone (the maidens) and re-reading it now, in the mother phase, I felt like I have been, at some time in my life, every woman in this book.

Except the Aunts (the crones). These are the most truly witch-like characters, the women who raise Sally and Gillian and who are ancient by the time the main action of the story takes place. Their names aren’t revealed until the very end of the book, which I loved noting this time around. Throughout the rest of the book, they are only mentioned in plural, together, sisters whose identities can’t be separated. Until they are revealed to us, separate. In fact, each of the three generations of Owens women in this book (main characters) are brought to us in sister pairs, one dark and one light, the moon and the sun. While they always remain true to themselves, we get to see each of them them wax and wane, reverse roles, set and rise.

More than the personal discoveries I made as I re-read, I was startled to (re)discover connections between Practical Magic and my decade-in-the-making novel, The Winter Circus. Because Practical Magic came along, for me, at such a seminal period of my personal and writerly growth, I absorbed it into my being and then promptly forgot that the roots of my work are buried in this book. I read Alice Hoffman books all the time and she’s at the top of my “favorite authors” list, so I’ve never forgotten that her style has influenced me as a writer, but I did forget how very concrete the connection is, from her writing to mine, especially with this book.

I last read Practical Magic fourteen years ago — Kylie is younger than the number of years since I last read it. Re-reading it now is like looking at old photographs of myself and thinking, “oh, if only you knew, one day…”

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Filed under Atlanta, books, literature, movies, musing, NaNoWriMo, New Orleans, pop culture, review, The Re-Reading Project, what I'm reading

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