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Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman

From the time Maria Owens is a tiny baby discovered in a field by the kindly Hannah, marked with the sign that she is a bloodline witch, she is on the way to discovering her magic. As Maria grows and watches Hannah, learning about herbs and spells and remedies to cure the steady stream of women who arrive at their cottage late at night when no one is watching, she swears one thing: she will never fall in love.

But love is not the only danger hanging over Hannah and Maria’s heads. The book is set in the seventeenth century. At this time, women who live alone – particularly women with the power to heal, and those who dare to read books – are likely to be accused of witchcraft.

Witchcraft is feared above all else, and witches are to be hunted down and killed. Not only does a witch turn any silver she touches black, she can’t help herself from floating in water. Failing the test of being drowned in the lake, she will be hanged or burned. And even good intentions won’t protect a witch. The deathwatch beetle is clacking.

As Maria is thrust out into the world all alone, she must keep her red boots that show she is a witch and her book of magic hidden. Sold into servitude in Curaçao, she keeps her head down but her mind wide open.

But even with all her spells and herbs, Maria can’t avoid love when it comes knocking in the shape of a man with diamonds and empty promises. With her red-haired daughter Faith in tow, she journeys to America to find the impulsive man who wooed her, only to find he is a magistrate who wants little to do with her. Settling down in Salem, Massachusetts, she tries to follow Hannah’s rules of leaving the door open to anyone who needs help. But both Maria and Faith are going to undergo trials and the years ahead will bring friends, enemies, dark magic, loss and laughter.

Magic Lessons is a prequel to Alice Hoffman’s Practical Magic and the Rules of Magic. Both of these novels follow the curse that haunts the later generations of Owen girls – which says that any man who falls in love with them is doomed. Practical Magic is also a movie (1995) starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. I haven’t read either of the other books in this series, but I did not feel I was disadvantaged coming to the story of the Owens fresh in the prequel. I felt intrigued to read more and find out what happened next, while those who are already familiar with the other two books (or the movie) will no doubt find it of interest to learn how the Owens’ curse began.

This is not a lighthearted book. Its themes include love, grief and loss; the lessons that make kind hearts and the trauma that shapes dark ones. Magic Lessons dives into the dangers of love – and its absolute necessity. Like many of Alice Hoffman’s historical novels, history is interspersed with a generous sprinkle of magic, but Maria, Faith, and those they meet are brilliantly and achingly brought to life.

Reviewer: Susannah Whaley

Simon and Schuster, RRP $37.99


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