Why Practical Magic Works

As a witch, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman is required reading. I’ve of course seen the movie countless times. But I only recently cracked into the novel.

It was a far different journey than the one I was expecting. I’m not the only person to mention this, but the movie is far different than the book. Normally when this happens, one or the other is more enjoyable. Most of the time, like with the Giver or Hunger Games, the book is better. On rare occasions, like with Forrest Gump, the movie is better. But in the case of Practical Magic, both are great. Just in very, very different ways.

First, let’s discuss what the two have in common. Both are about two women, sisters named Sally and Gillian Owens. After their parents die, they’re raised by their aunts. Gillian, the wild child, runs off as soon as she’s old enough. Sally finds a good man, has two baby girls and is widowed when the girls are still little. Then Gillian brings back trouble, in the form of an abusive boyfriend she accidentally poisoned. When a detective named Hallet arrives, Sally and Gillian try to hide their homicide. But soon Sally finds herself falling in love with him.

The movie, on the off chance you’re one of three women in the world who hasn’t seen it, is a feel-good film about sisterhood. The townswomen have hated the Owens family for generations. But in their time of need, they come together. 

The book isn’t that sort. Sally Owens, after being ostracized her entire life, decides to leave. This is after her husband died, and she spent a year in a depressive fog. 

The book is a bit more episodic. Yes, Gillian does bring her troubles and her abusive boyfriend to her big sister for help. But then the two bury him in the backyard and go about their lives.

Their lives revolve largely around raising Sally’s daughters. 

And this is where the book shines.

Sally and Gillian fight over how to live their lives and, by an extent, how to raise the children. Gillian undermines Sally’s parenting, and Sally in return blows up at her.

The girls bicker like teenagers, fall in love with boys, and are threatened by drunks. It all feels real. It all feels like the lives of girls all over the world right now.

The same can be said for Sally and Gillian. They’re both struggling with the fact that, despite The Aunt’s best intentions, they never felt wanted. Sally handled that by growing up to fast. Gillian handled it by not growing up at all. 

In the end, though, The Aunts prove that they love the sisters more than they ever realized. They come to their aid, after years of neglect by both girls, might I add. 

I know I keep saying this, but it all feels so real. And through it all, we see notes of magic that feel attainable. It feels, in short, practical. 

In short, here’s why Practical Magic works.

It’s honest. That’s it. The book talks honestly about depression. It talks honestly about a woman’s relationship with her parents, her sister, and her daughters. It talks honestly about romantic relationships, both good and bad. It talks about loss, and it doesn’t sugarcoat a damn thing. Sometimes Sally and Gillian are just fucking mean to each other. Sometimes they do stupid things. Sometimes Sally isn’t a good mother. Sometimes the girls are also fucking mean to each other. And I love that none of them are right all the time, none of them are wrong all the time. They are, only and entirely, family.

I loved this book, and I’ll be reading it again soon. I hope that if you haven’t read Practical Magic, you do soon. Because it works. 

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