The Rules of Magic: A Novel - Alice Hoffman

I've waited a few weeks to write this review so that I could let the book settle in my imagination before expressing an opinion but my initial assessment of: "I like THIS but not THAT and overall, I could have enjoyed it more"  hasn't changed.


I liked the ideas behind the story: the problems in dealing with a possible family curse that becomes real once you start to believe in it; the reaction of siblings with unusual gifts to parents who try not just to pretend that the gifts don't exist but take steps to prevent them from being used; the rites and rituals for the passing on of knowledge and ethical codes around the importance and inevitability of choice from one generation to the next and multiple stories of doomed love and abiding kinship.


There were also some great scenes that stuck in my memory: the first visit to their aunt's house, the doom-laden moonlit swim in Central Park, the Pastor and the sister sitting in lawn chairs in the cemetery, the porch light and all it meant to the local community when it was lit. The characters of the three siblings are well drawn and evolve realistically and the supporting characters are filled out enough to be real.


Listing these things, my review ought to be: "What a book! You MUST read this." but that's not how I feel.


The things I've listed are like the three-minute movie trailer that makes you hungry to go and see a hundred-and-ten-minute film that you then don't enjoy as much as you expected to.


For me, the storytelling was too much at arms-length from the characters. It was like a great script being messed up by poor camera work and lighting. The authorial voice started to annoy me. It seemed to focus on "So THAT'S how the folks in 'Practical Magic' came to be that way." rather than on the here and now they were living in. I know this is a challenge in any book that spans decades and it was probably made worse by the fact that I haven't yet read "Practical Magic" but it kept me at a distance from the emotions in the narrative. It also seemed to me that the omniscient authorial voice was not an empathetic one. There was a flavour of, "See! This is what happens when you mess with this stuff." that I found unpleasant and which was compounded by an inconsistent approach to the balance between fate and agency.


I suspect I'll be thinking about and arguing with myself about this book for some time.


I know that I'll be going on to read "Practical Magic" and see if that makes sense of everything. Perhaps I'm just suffering from the same problems that would be faced by someone watching "Star Wars Episode I The Phantom Menace" without having seen "Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope". 


I listened to the audiobook version of "The Rules Of Magic" which was expertly narrated by Marin Ireland. Click on the SoundCloud link below to hear a sample.


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