Reading a book after a movie is usually a different kind of experience, but in the case of Alice Hoffman’s novel titled Practical Magic, it was a welcome pleasure.
The book follows the life of a family of so-called witches, although Hoffman never definitively labels the Owens” family as such. Two women who mourn the loss of the loves of their lives (due to lightening, a recurring theme that symbolizes the explosion of emotion of true love) are given a second chance at life when their great nieces move into their home. Young Gillian, a flaxen-haired beauty, is loved by the aunts and coddled by the unusual family. Sally, the eldest, takes the reins and attempts to make the household as ‘normal’ as possible. The aunts refuse to set rules such as a normal household – no curfew, no limitations, no questions asked. Despite her best intentions, Sally and Gillian witness the many strange oddities the aunts bring to their somewhat spooky abode. While the aunts stay at home during the day, working in the garden, drinking tea, and reading, when evening falls, community members – especially lovelorn women – visit the aunts for a magical fix.
Seeing this happen and inevitably go badly, the girls vow to never allow love to lead them down the wrong path.
As the girls mature, Sally struggles to keep hold of any sign of normalcy, even while the community shuns her. Gillian, on the other hand, gets more and more wild and finally takes the leap – off a balcony – to run off and marry her beau.
Meanwhile Sally continues to live with the aunts, eventually meeting a wonderful man and getting married. As seemed natural at the time, Sally and her hubby move into the aunt’s home and what was once a creepy, mice-infested, bat-ridden house transforms into a lush, open, flower-bedecked home for the growing family.
Sally has two little girls of her own – Antonia (a raven-haired belle) and Kylie (a tall, lithe brunette), and as the family flourishes, the death watch beetle rears its ugly head. Sally’s husband is then killed by a drunk driver.
In grief, Sally spends a year in silence. At the end of the year, she uproots the girls and heads to New York to lead a “normal” life away from the aunts. The girls grow older and Antonia grows more bratty and spoiled, Kylie grows more introverted and sweeter. Antonia begs to return to the aunts, Kylie stays close to her mother. Sally puts all of her energy into raising her girls and continues with her mission to never fall under love’s spell again.
Then Gillian shows up on her doorstep and chaos ensues. Gillian sports bruises on her arms. She is silent and scared. After years away from Sally, she is desperate for help. She explains to her sister that latest man is dead. His body is in the car. She needs Sally’s help to hide the evidence. Of course Sally agrees to help. her loyalty to Gillian is too strong. Together the sisters bury Jimmy’s body in the backyard.
In the coming days the ghost of Jimmy haunts the Owens’ sisters. While Kylie is the only person to be able to see him in corporeal form, the others – Gillian, Sally, and even Antonia – are aware of his presence in the household.
As days pass and the family struggles to keep it together, a new man enters the picture – Ben Frye. A teacher at the high school, Ben is the apple of the eye of every single woman (and student) in town. He, however, only has eyes for Gillian. Fearful of making yet another mistake in a long list of lost loves, Gillian takes her sweet time contacting Ben. When she does, she finds that the goal to never let love overtake her is futile. She falls madly, deeply, and totally in love.
When things seem to calm down, the worst happens. A detective from Arizona shows up on their porch and begins to question both Sally and Gillian about Jimmy. Lying through her teeth may be Gillian’s specialty, but Sally can’t handle the stress. She gives in and visits the detective to tell him the truth before he leaves town.
Meanwhile Ghost Jimmy is making matters in the house worse. Thorns and wasps are growing out of control in the backyard right over his grave. Two telltale signs have shown up at the grave site – his ring and his boots. Surely someone will know that he has been buried right there in Sally’s yard! The girls have no choice – they call in the aunts to work some magic and rid them of this evil man once and for all.
When the aunts appear it is a homecoming as no other. The aunts – ever stoic family leaders – step in to take care of the problem and enjoy this their first visit to see Sally and the girls. The book ends months later with everyone gathered at the aunts homestead making Thanksgiving dinner together. Corny, perhaps, but equally endearing. Together with all of the important men of their lives, the girls are finally at peace with their not-normal lifestyle.
Having seen the movie first, I would say that the note at the credits should state the movie is not based on the book but rather the movie is inspired by characters in the book. The movie absolutely has more action and moves along at a quicker pace than the book which has four rather large sections strung together and plenty of narration. A worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in the story behind the movie.