front cover of the book Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman
Written by:
 Alice Hoffman
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, copyright 1995, hardcover (pictured above)
Total pages: 244
STC Genre: Out of the Bottle

Living in the Midwest, it’s impossible to ignore this new, sharp chill in the autumn air or fail to witness the yearly transformation of the leaves—changing a lush green to a burnt orange or a fiery red. There’s a kind of alchemy in nature, giving the impression of the miraculous. Sorcery is afoot all season long. Perhaps that’s why it seems so easy to believe in magic in October.

For me, a story that captures this sensation perfectly is Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic. My personal copy is a treasured one. It’s not only a beautiful physical book—a hardcover signed by the author—but it was a gift from a fellow writer, a friend who’d somehow guessed that Hoffman’s insightful and atmospheric novel would resonate with me. This story in particular remains one of my favorite examples of magical realism… a perfect morsel of masterful prose befitting the month of Halloween.

Cosmopolitan described it as: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”

Ah, happy endings! Not always a given in books featuring the supernatural.

About the novel:

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town.

Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well. As children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats.

But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape. One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic.

This month also brings some exciting news for Hoffman fans. She just released the fourth and final installment in this series (The Book of Magic) on October 12th. I’m looking forward to delving into that tale, too, but it was a pleasure to revisit the novel where I was first introduced to these enchanting characters and to get to reread Practical Magic with Blake Snyder’s beat sheet in mind.

Come join me as we pass through the wispy veil and step into the world of the mysterious and magical Owens family!

Opening Image (pages 1 – 4): We get a first glimpse into the Owens house on Magnolia Street and its four residents—Aunt Frances (“Franny”), Aunt Bridget (“Jet”), Sally, and Gillian—who are regarded as oddities at best, and unlucky by most.

Set-Up (pages 1 – 25): Two sisters—as different from one another as Night and Day—are orphaned at a young age and sent to live with their two eccentric aunts in a small Massachusetts town where they’re immediately treated as outcasts. There are no regular meals, bedtimes, or rules for them, which even the children themselves find strange, but their aunts, who are known locally as the creators of love potions and other herbal remedies, are far from typical.

Sally, the eldest of the girls by 13 months, has black hair and a tremendous sense of responsibility. She’s studious, willing to cook and clean, and is constantly taking on more than a child should. Her deepest desire it to be like everyone else, which is the least likely thing that could happen in a family like hers. Her younger sister Gillian is a beautiful blond boy magnet, who’s lazy, self-centered, and prone to getting herself into trouble.

Had anyone else in school or in their neighborhood been willing to befriend them, these two sisters probably would have drifted apart. As it is, they are the only ones who can be there for each other. Of the two girls, it’s conscientious Sally that the aunts worry about most.

Theme Stated (page 12 and page 21): Despite the vows Sally and Gillian made in their youth never to be ruled by their passions, both the pursuit and the avoidance of love seem to underscore their lives and cause them endless issues over the years. The powerful nature of desire and real love, regardless of rational promises or logic, runs throughout the story.

From page 12: “Desire had a way of making a person oddly courageous.” And from page 21: “Real love was dangerous, it got you from inside and held on tight, and if you didn’t let go fast enough you might be willing to do anything for its sake.” Both sisters eventually find themselves needing to confront this compelling force.

Catalyst (pages 25 – 35): The sisters are separated for what will turn out to be many years when Gillian elopes with her first of three husbands and moves away, vowing never to come back to Massachusetts. Sally also falls for a man, but she stays married to him. He moves into the house on Magnolia Street and they have two daughters—Antonia and Kylie. Then her husband suddenly dies, and all the normalcy Sally thought she’d earned falls apart.

Debate (pages 35 – 41): Sally doesn’t speak for an entire year. She and her daughters are still living in the same house with Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet, and the aunts are taking care of her daughters while she distances herself from the world. Gillian calls her on the phone every week to try to get her to engage in life again, but she won’t do it. Sally has stopped believing in everything… until, finally, she begins to see colors again, and the behavior of the people in their town. She realizes she needs to live in a place where the residents won’t point at her children and make them feel the way she and her sister did growing up. Sally packs their bags and decides to move.

Break into Two (pages 41- 47): Sally buys a home for herself and her daughters in the state of New York. It’ll be a fresh start for them all. A house with a white picket fence, no walls that are painted black, and an absence of cats and strange potions. She gets a respectable job as an assistant to the vice principal at the high school and, while she loves her aunts, she only intends to visit them for one week each August. Welcome to Sally’s nice, normal, new world!

B Story (pages 48 – 57): Time jumps ahead by over a decade, and Sally’s two daughters are now both teenagers. Antonia is 16, selfish, mouthy, and stunningly beautiful. Kylie is on the verge of turning 13, smart, athletic, and chronically insecure about her appearance, especially when her big sister teases her, which is often. Kylie and Antonia’s sisterly relationship is at the heart of the B Story—a comparison to Sally and Gillian’s and, occasionally, a foil to it.

This is also where the various romantic relationship threads for each of these four female characters gradually begin to unfold. Proof that love and friendship can take many forms. For Kylie, there’s her pal Gideon. For Antonia, there’s a college student named Scott. For Gillian, biology teacher Ben will unwittingly win her heart. And for Sally, investigator Gary will be her surprising love interest by the novel’s end.

Fun and Games (pages 48 – 97): A double-ringed halo appears around the moon (an omen) and, with it, the reappearance of Gillian in Sally’s life… at her nice, normal house, where she’s become a respected member of the community. Gillian comes blowing into town with a problem, of course, in the form of her mean and abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend Jimmy, who’s in the car with her. More specifically, he’s dead, and Gillian believes she accidentally killed him.

Prior to this, Sally’s life in New York had been pretty staid and uneventful. She rarely dated and didn’t think of love as a reality or even a possibility for herself. She’d been warning her sister about the dangers of a man like Jimmy for some time, even sending her a strongly worded letter, which Gillian didn’t receive because she and her boyfriend had to hightail it out of Arizona due to his illegal actions.

Sally now has to help her sister bury Jimmy’s body. They select a spot in the backyard, near the lilac bushes, which begin blooming like crazy afterward. Gillian then moves into Sally’s house, creating all sorts of tension, not the least of which involves her relationship with her nieces, Antonia and Kylie. Antonia becomes jealous and angry. And Kylie begins dressing and behaving differently, thanks to the influence of her “cool” Aunt Gillian, and coming into her own powers. The auras she could always see around people start to intensify after her 13th birthday. Unbeknownst to her mom and her aunt, Kylie can also see the ghost of Jimmy.

Midpoint (pages 97 – 117): False defeat. Upon discovering that Kylie has “seen” Jimmy outside in the yard, Sally and Gillian realize that haven’t gotten rid of him like they’d thought. Moreover, this vile and nasty spirit actually enjoys it when they’re fighting. He’ll do everything he can within his ghostly influence to keep the conflict going.

Bad Guys Close In (pages 117 – 193): Jimmy is haunting them. His silver ring rises from the dirt and a toad brings it inside, along with a massive dose of bad luck for the Owens family. The insanely huge lilacs—their growth a sign of Jimmy’s possession—are drawing people to the house, especially those who are grieving. Kylie is feeling the emotions of strangers and it’s making her sad. In addition to all the changes adolescence brings, she fears that others will see who she really is before she can see it herself. She attempts to reconcile with Gideon after a rift in their friendship, but things go awry. Her grown-up appearance attracts two drunk men who chase her and leave her terrified.

Antonia feels forgotten and breaks down in front of Scott. Gillian believes she’s unworthy of Ben’s affection and can’t understand why the popular teacher would want to be with her. She desires him, but doesn’t trust her emotions. And Sally’s world is in total upheaval. Beyond what’s happening to her in her own home, the letter she’d mailed to Gillian in Arizona is intercepted by an investigator looking into Jimmy’s disappearance. That man is Gary, and he now has an address to visit in his search for his suspect. He gets on the next flight to New York.

All Is Lost (pages 193 – 198): Whiff of death—which, among other deaths, includes the murder of three college students, all of whom took Jimmy’s tainted drugs. Gary arrives at Sally’s house determined to locate Jimmy, but he’s also attracted to Sally. After having read her letter (multiple times), he was a little in love with her before they’d even met. Sally, too, finds herself attracted to Gary and, to Gillian’s dismay, unable to lie to him. Gillian instructs her to stay silent, but Gary spots Jimmy’s distinctive silver ring and realizes the Owens sisters know more than they’re saying. Sally believes they’ll be implicated in Jimmy’s death and makes the decision, against her sister’s wishes, to go talk with him and to confess.

Dark Night of the Soul (pages 198 – 217): It’s a sorrowful night for Gillian and Ben, Kylie and Gideon, and Antonia and Scott—there will be separations ahead—and for Sally as well, who seeks out Gary and fears the repercussions of telling him the truth. Gary has conflicted feelings about the situation, but he’s still very drawn to Sally. Normally, Gillian would have bolted by now, but it’s a sign of her growth that she stays in the house with her nieces, despite her many apprehensions and insecurities.

Break into Three (pages 217 – 218): Sally returns home and tells Gillian about her confusing meeting with Gary. The sisters also discover that Jimmy simply refuses to stay buried. One of his snakeskin boots surfaces in the backyard. This is the last straw. Gillian says, “Call the aunts. Do it now.” Both sisters recognize that Aunt Franny and Aunt Jet are the only ones who might know how to deal with anything like this.

Finale (pages 218 – 243): The two aunts come armed with tools to help fix not only the problem in the backyard (they know how to get rid of Jimmy’s body for good), but also to try to mend the emotional wounds of their nieces and grandnieces. For Sally and Gillian in particular, their self worth has been bound up in the past for so long. They need to accept their history, rather than try to run from it, but they also need to embrace their gifts and the beloved people in their lives so they can move forward.

Although Jimmy died when he was with Gillian, the aunts prove she didn’t kill him. As for Ben, they really like him. He’s a kind, devoted, and considerate man who truly loves Gillian and who will eventually marry her. Antonia and Kylie have grown closer recently, which shows their own maturity. As for Sally, she appreciates her aunts and all she’s learned from them. She finds out that Jimmy’s silver ring, which Gary took with him back to Arizona, turned up on a dead body down there (clearly, Gary’s doing), so she and Gillian are free from further investigation. Sally, her daughters, Gillian and Ben, and various family friends all plan to gather at the aunts’ house on Magnolia Street for a large and festive Thanksgiving.

Final Image (pages 243 – 244): In a classic “Out of the Bottle” moment, the hero/heroine wins without the use of magic. During the Thanksgiving celebration, Gary returns to Sally—freely and without the help of any love potion—and she runs to greet him. She’s revised her beliefs. The biggest among them is this: “Fall in love whenever you can.”