Book review: The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman

This review was commissioned by Fairfax and was originally published in the weekend papers and on on 19 May 2018.


There's something irritating about books that are just… OK. The Rules of Magic is Alice Hoffman's prequel to her bestseller, Practical Magic, and it's competently written and easy enough to read. But the more I think about it, the more it's annoying me.

The Rules of Magic is the story of three siblings – Franny, Jet and Vincent – growing up in New York City in the mid 20th century. They have all inherited magical abilities from their mother, who has run away from her family to try and escape all things magical, and in particular, the family curse. Inherited from a Salem-witch-trials-era ancestor, the curse says that any man who is loved by a woman in the family will die.

The curse really bothered me: it's a strange kind of multi-generational slut-shaming. Women mustn't have sex because death will follow: women's sexuality is to be feared and repressed. This, understandably, makes sisters Franny and Jet pretty neurotic. Vincent, on the other hand, under the classic sexist double standard, has many sexual partners, none of whom die. The question of what would happen if a woman in the family fell in love with a woman is never addressed.

There are weird attitudes towards sex throughout the book. At one point, a middle-aged character has a sexual relationship with a child of about 14, and the other characters look on this leniently rather than treating it as a crime. A character who is gay moves to Paris, because that's where decadent sexual irregularities are indulged, and Hoffman has him change his identity so as to not bring shame on his American family.

I had thought, based on the book's title and on the fact that Franny is repeatedly described as "scientific", that a part of The Rules of Magic would be devoted to investigating how magic works in Hoffman's universe. This does not occur. There is a lot of herbalism, but it's all quite vague.

"They mixed henna with limes, roses, tea, and eucalyptus and let it simmer overnight, for henna's hue reflects the strength of love of a woman for a man, the thicker and deeper the colour, the more genuine the love." (But how much henna, exactly? Which species of rose?)

Hoffman has created an anxious, middle-class white woman brand of magic. There's lots of superstition, candles, gardening, and soap-making. Magic is presented as being mostly feminine, but it's a femininity that is hemmed in and ruled by fear. The Rules of Magic also suffers from the problem of all prequels in that we know how it has to end: we know the curse won't be broken. The whole book has the uncomfortable aura of being mostly superfluous.

The Rules of Magic is one of those books that's easy to pick up and easy to put down. If you're looking for something to read for 20 minutes before going to sleep each night, this would be… OK.