The Rules of Magic, by Alice Hoffman, chronicles three siblings coming of age in 1960’s New York City. Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention; they’re witches.
A prequel to Hoffman’s Practical Magic, The Rules of Magic came out in October of 2017. Descended from a long line of witches originating in Massachusetts, the siblings soon learn that their quirks and talents are not just so. Their origins hidden from them by their mother, they’ve lived their lives following certain rules that never made any sense; no wearing red shoes, no owning black cats, and most importantly; no falling in love. It’s only when the eldest, Frances, receives a letter from their aunt that they begin to suspect not all is as it seems. The three siblings travel to Massachusetts, and from there, unwittingly stumble upon their origins, a terrible family secret, and the meaning of love.
This book is centered in reality in the sense that almost immediately, the siblings defy these rules they’ve been given and pledge to lead their own lives. Despite being warned never to fall in love, for there is a curse running through their blood that causes harm to anyone who loves them, the middle child, Jet, takes up a secret affair. Early in the book, the son, Vincent, also defies these laws and begins to dabble in the art of black magic, which eventually takes its toll on him.
Despite my preconceptions coming into the book, this book was not about magic. Above all, this is a coming of age tale about family, and the lengths one goes to protect them. It’s obvious without Hoffman having to tell us that these siblings have a bond stronger than anything else in their lives. All but neglected by their parents, they’ve had only themselves to cling to as they begin to discover their potential and even dangerous power.
The ending takes an unexpected turn in the sense that the curse is never truly broken, but instead the siblings learn to live with its consequences. Frances struggles with the curse all her life, fighting her inevitable feelings for her best friend, Haydin. Many times she pushes him away only for him to come back into her life, along with her fear that something might happen to him. She’s seen first hand in her other siblings how love, and the loss of it, can be devastating. But the refusal of love can have dire consequences, as well. As she grows, Frances finds herself hard-hearted and mean-spirited, and often calls herself the “Queen of Thorns.” However, by the end of the book Frances learns that it’s truly better to have loved, and to have lost it, than never to have had it. All the siblings learn that the true meaning of love is to be courageous, vulnerable, and open to it.
I enjoy the message and the unconventional way Hoffman comes about it. Hoffman has the power to write about things such as magic (like in Practical Magic) and religion (like in The World That We Knew), and not have it overrun her story. In fact, these huge themes often take a back seat to the characters, the plot, and the message. It shows the reader that, despite what many paranormal fiction and historical fiction works do, that the characters are MORE than their situation or their setting. For example, the siblings in The Rules of Magic are much more than witches and (fictional) historical figures. Instead, Hoffman paints them as strikingly different and exuberant personalities, each battling his or her struggles in their own way, and more importantly, each of them loving and learning to love in their own way.
Overall, Hoffman paints another beautifully descriptive and heartfelt piece full of love, loss, and the importance of family.