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The Rules of Magic

November 19, 2018

If you’re looking for a modern-day grimoire, The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman, isn’t it. Some of the “rules” are disappointingly mundane: no red shoes, no wearing black, no cats, no crows, no candles, no books about magic, no walking in the moonlight. Others are oddly specific: do not drink milk after a thunderstorm, always leave out seed for the birds when the first snow falls, wash your hair with rosemary, drink lavender tea when you cannot sleep. A couple are quite general: harm no one, remember that what you give will be returned to you threefold. The biggest ones are rules gleaned from experience or a child’s rebellion against the experiences of a previous generation: fall in love whenever you can, never fall in love, or know that the only remedy for love is to love more.

There is an actual grimoire in this novel, “a treasured text of magic…imbued with magical power. Writing itself was a magical act in which imagination altered reality and gave form to power. To this end, the book was the most powerful element of all. If it wasn’t yours and you dared to touch it, your hand would likely burn for weeks…”

The Rules of Magic consist mostly of benign Wiccan guidelines, along with vague warnings against “dark magic” involving ingredients like the heart of a dove or a person’s tooth. The main character, Franny, keeps a notebook to remember all the harmless suggestions and herb lore passed down in her family:
“Star tulip to understand dreams, bee balm for a restful sleep, black mustard seed to repel nightmares, remedies that used essential oils of almond or apricot or myrrh from thorn trees in the desert. Two eggs, which must never be eaten, set under a bed to clean a tainted atmosphere. Vinegar as a cleansing bath. Garlic, salt and rosemary, the ancient spell to cast away evil.
For women who wanted a child, mistletoe was to be strung over their beds. If that had no effect, they must tie nine knots in a strong rope, then burn the rope and eat the ashes and soon enough they would conceive. Blue must be worn for protection. Moonstones were useful in connecting with the living, topaz to contact the dead. Copper, sacred to Venus, will call a man to you, and black tourmaline will eliminate jealousy. When it came to love, you must always be careful. If you dropped something belonging to the man you loved into a candle flame, then added pine needles and marigold flowers, he would arrive on your doorstep by morning, so you would do well to be certain you wanted him there. The most basic and reliable love potion was made from anise, rosemary, honey, and cloves boiled for nine hours on the back burner of the old stove. It had always cost $9.99 and was therefore called Love Potion Number Nine, which worked best on the ninth hour of the ninth day of the ninth month.”

The Rules of Magic is a prequel to Practical Magic, which was made into a movie with Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in the 1990’s. It tells the story of the girls’ grandfather Vincent and his sisters Franny and Jet, along with the rebellions and rules that affect their lives. I found much of the plot frustrating; there seems to be no good reason why their parents forbid Jet’s love for a particular boy, no real reason for Franny to decide that she can’t ever fall in love, and no rules for Vincent, who gets to do whatever he wants, at least up until the draft begins for the Vietnam war.

Jet can read other peoples’ thoughts, which seems to be as realistically portrayed as is possible, since she resists revealing what she knows:
“What am I thinking right now?”
“Franny,” Jet demurred. “Thoughts should be private things. I do my best not to listen in.”
“Seriously. Tell me. What am I thinking right now?”
Jet paused….”You’re thinking we’re not like other people.”
“Well, I’ve always thought that.” Franny laughed, relieved that was all her sister had picked up. “That’s nothing new.”
Later, when Jet went out into the garden, she stood beneath the lilacs with their dusky heart-shaped leaves. Everything smelled like mint and regret.
I wish we were like other people.
That was what Franny had been thinking.
Oh, how I wish we could fall in love.

The origin of a rule can always be traced back to an experience in the family’s past. When Franny asks why a particular relationship is secret, her aunt says “why is anything a secret? People want to protect themselves from the past. Not that it works.” Their family is special, the children are told over and over. “They were…all descendants of a witch-finder and a witch, and therein lay the very heart of the curse’s beginnings, for they were fated to try their best to deny who they were and to refute their true selves.”

It’s a good story, but I don’t believe in curses and think we make our own fate. Too much of that kind of talk sends my mind straight to an image of Gene Wilder as Young Frankenstein, comedically tossing himself back and forth upon a pillow shouting “destiny, destiny, no escaping that for me!”

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. November 19, 2018 4:32 pm

  2. November 20, 2018 10:50 am

    Hoffman is hit or miss for me and I have a feeling this would fall more on the miss side.

    • November 20, 2018 11:16 am

      It might. I got a whiff of baby boomer nostalgia coming off of it.

  3. November 20, 2018 11:29 am

    Sounds like this had a lot of potential in terms of the subject matter, but your detailed review left me thinking this would be unsatisfying for me.

    Oh, but Young Frankenstein! ❤

    • November 20, 2018 11:31 am

      It really is a good story. I just wasn’t all that interested in the details of the story, and so focused my attention on the rules because they were promised by the title!

  4. November 21, 2018 2:36 pm

    It’s been ages since I’ve read Hoffman. I remember really enjoying Blackbird House, though.

    • November 21, 2018 3:57 pm

      That’s one I’ve never read. I picked this one up because some FB friends were talking about it and I’d just watched the movie of Practical Magic, on Jenny’s (of Reading the End) recommendation.

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