This is one of those things where I love the book, and I love the movie, but they are completely different stories, and I love them in very different ways. Most people know the movie but not the book, and in a lot of ways, that’s a shame. The book is not as easy to digest. The characters are more complex and not always as likeable, but they’re very real. But that’s a lot of why I like it. I find something to empathise with in almost all of the main characters, and sometimes it’s for their flaws rather than for their virtues. Sally’s sense of justice, Gillian’s need to be adored, Antonia’s childish selfishness, Kylie’s spooky intuition. I don’t identify with any one of them entirely, but I can see some part of myself in each, and that makes the book thoroughly enjoyable.
The story: Sally and Gillian, orphaned at an early age, grow up with their aunts (or possibly great-aunts; it’s never made quite clear, but it doesn’t seem possible, age-wise, that Jet and Frances are their mother’s sister). Strange things happen all around their family, giving them a reputation for witchcraft and leading to the girls being ostracized by their peers — but the women of their town still come to the aunts for advice and help. The sisters grow up quite close, having no other options for companionship, despite how different they are; they also learn learn by negative example, watching the women who come to the aunts, crazy for love. They both end up building high walls around their hearts, though in different ways. Sally eventually does love and marry, but falls into a deep year-long depression when she’s widowed; Gillian begins using and losing men from the age of 14 on, tearing through hearts with no conscience or consequence, until a brute named Jimmy hooks her but good. Both girls end up running away from their childhood home, though it takes Sally rather longer to make the break. They don’t see each other for eighteen years, during which time Sally’s daughters grow into teenagers — nowhere near as close as she and Gillian were. Antonia is spoiled and self-centered and often quite cruel to younger, awkward Kylie.
Their lives up-end, though, when Gillian turns up unexpectedly with Jimmy dead in the car, believing she accidentally murdered him by dosing him with belladonna. She and Sally bury him beneath a lilac bush which is soon overteeming with unseasonal blooms. His malevolence bleeds from beyond the grave, putting all four women at each others’ throats until they can determine to come together to rid their lives of the influence (with a little help called in from the aunts).
The book isn’t called Practical Magic for nothing; the magic is far less overt in the book than in the movie, almost accidental in lots of ways, nothing more than folklore in others. But it definitely is still there, an undercurrent — whole sections of the book will go by that are just about life, plain and simple, and then one little thing will pop up to remind you that the Owens women are not like everyone else. But throughout it all, they are also still women — who grow, and make mistakes, and snipe at each other, and regret it. There’s a lot in there about growing up — not just in the obvious ways, as we see both sets of sisters through the ever-tumultuous teenage years.
It was Gillian’s story, more than any other, that hit me this time around. Not that I’ve ever been as reckless as she is, but her lesson is one of recovering from damage and learning to trust. For both her and Sally, the romance is another understated theme — but an important one. Love catches them both by surprise, but when it hits them, it seems to do so like a ton of bricks. Things fall into place, despite the challenges, despite their damage, and when they do, both the women know it’s meant to be. And I find that inspiring.
Practical Magic is a great book and terribly compelling. It weaves reality in with the paranormal in a way that is so simple and elegant — no flash, no pretense, just human lives that happen to be touched by this little bit of something extra. Alice Hoffman is wonderful with creating complex, dynamic characters who are at once so special and so relatable. Highly recommended — especially if you like the movie. The book is different, as I said — less simple, less comical, with a more subdued supernatural element — but still definitely worth the try.