The First Bad Review

h1 August 8th, 2006 by eisha

Practical MagicHere’s something I’ve been dreading. I hate having to write down anything really negative about a book, because it’s not like I’ve had anything published, so anything I read, no matter how foul, still has one up on me. And I really wanted to like this one, too. But, in the interest of keeping this blog honest, and possibly saving anyone else from making the same mistake…

I’ve tried Alice Hoffman before. I read Here on Earth when it came out, because I was intrigued by the idea of an updated Wuthering Heights. And it was okay… but just okay. Then, when Green Angel came out a couple of years ago, I started it… and couldn’t finish it. Maybe it was just me, but it felt like a big parable about 9/11, and I still haven’t recovered from the media saturation of that day enough to be able to embrace a fictionalized version. And again, I just didn’t think it was all that great.

But I recently experienced what seemed like a supernatural force guiding me to read Practical Magic. Two separate people, both with generally good taste in books, recommended it to me completely independently of each other; and I caught about 30 seconds of the movie while flipping channels. All within a single week. I’m not one to ignore the signs. I picked up a copy, and read the flap: “Yankee Magic Realism” it says. “A world that blends the mundane and the mysterious, the familiar and the fantastic, the normal and the numinous” it says. Okay, I said. I’ll give it a try.

And it has a promising premise. A family of women, feared as witches by the town’s inhabitants for the past two hundred years. Two sisters, different as night and day, being raised by their elderly, eccentric, possibly magical aunts. Growing up ostracized, choosing their separate paths to take them away from their predetermined roles. Good stuff, that.

But: I gave up after 40 pages. Yeah, I’m under the Nancy Pearl-mandated 50 pages, but I just can’t go on. The problem, for me, is the inconsistency of the characters. The aunts, for example – who 40-pages-in don’t have names, or even a definite number. They’re described as admiring the girls’ deceased mother for having known “how to have fun,” which in that passage means walking tightrope-style along a porch railing after too much whisky. They urge the reclusive Sally to “Go out” and “Have fun” like her wilder, promiscuous sister instead of sitting at home reading library books on Saturday nights. But a few years (and pages) later, at a party celebrating the birth of Sally’s daughter, they “refused to participate and insisted upon watching the festivities through the kitchen window… They were antisocial old dames who had better things to do with their time, or so they maintained.” And a few pages (and years) later, having taken Sally’s young daughters to the park…

The aunts did not speak to each other, and the girls certainly did not play. The aunts saw no point in jumping rope or tossing a ball back and forth. In their opinion, such things were a silly waste of time. Better to observe the world around you. Better to watch the swans, and the blue sky, and the other children, who shouted and laughed during wild games of kickball and tag. Learn to be as quiet as a mouse. Concentrate until you are as silent as the spider in the grass.

So… is it just me, or are they totally contradicting themselves? Sally should have fun, but her girls shouldn’t? And Sally and Gillian seem to vacillate, too. Maybe it all makes sense by the end, but I just don’t have the patience to see it through. Maybe it really is just me. And maybe I’ll risk bringing the displeasure of the gods down upon my head by turning it in before I finish it. So be it – life is short, and my stack of library books I need to read is ever taller.

But if anyone else has read this and would like to come to its defense, please do. I’ll happily hear what I’m missing.

5 comments to “The First Bad Review”

  1. Thanks for your bravery in being the first to post a negative review. And, hey, Pearl may mandate 50 pages, but Daniel Pennac’s Reader’s Bill of Rights says you have the right to not finish a book (see Reader’s Bill of Rights under “Seven Impossible Book Sites”)! – jules

  2. Just remember, nobody remembers Dorothy Parker for her good reviews . . .

  3. Yeah, but I’m not trying to be Michiko Kakutani, here.

  4. Give another Hoffman book, Blackbird House, a shot. I loved it.

  5. Oh, okay, Laila. Since you asked. But one more, and that’s it!

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