Skip to main content

Bewitchment, Beauty, and Betrayal

December 6, 2020

Winter is on the way! That means time for toasty warm fires! Steaming mugs of Tazo tea!

Me, snuggled up on my oh-so-comfortable couch with a great book in hand.

No genre appeals to me this time of year like fantasy, and I'm so happy to share that Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman is the perfect enchanting read as we settle into gray and chilly winter weather. 

Magic Lessons is the second prequel (the first is The Rules of Magic) to Practical Magic, Hoffman’s most famous novel. That’s where we met the magical and mysterious Owens family, a family where the women possess some truly extraordinary abilities.

If you need a refresher, Practical Magic centers on Jillian and Sally Owens, sisters who recoil against their magic and strange family history. They don’t want to believe they are anything but normal or that their ancestor, Maria Owens, was truly an all-powerful witch.  

It's an engaging, imaginative book and was adapted (VERY loosely) into the 1998 film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman.  

In both the novel and the movie, we see and really feel the intense emotional bond Sally and Jillian share, and I loved watching them slowly take the path from resisting their unusual heritage to embracing it – though not without some hardships and heartache along the way. You don’t need to read Practical Magic to follow Magic Lessons, but if you do, you’ll see hints of foreshadowing and a few winks to the later events with the modern Owens generation.


In Magic Lessons, we go far, far back in time to meet Maria Owens herself. Born in the 17th century and abandoned at birth, she's taken in by Hannah Owens, a solitary old woman who is well-versed in the “Nameless Arts” ... aka magic.

Hannah makes medicines, potions, and spells with plants and flowers found in the forest. She tends to illnesses no one else can treat. And above all else, she has the power to take charge of her customer’s dire situations involving love.

Lost love, unrequited love, untrustworthy love? Hannah has spells for them all, but she always warns:

“Do as you will, but harm no one.

What you give will be returned threefold”

It’s the first rule of magic she teaches Maria. If you do kindness, it will be returned three times over.

If you do an unkindness or something nefarious, the same applies.

But Maria is a human with complicated emotions and like us all, she makes mistakes. Her anger and fury lead her to dabble in some dangerous and dark magical territory. It’s no spoiler to say that a broken-hearted witch is a force to be reckoned with.

Maria's journey takes her to Salem, Massachusetts, and she ends up caught during the Salem Witch Trials — Hoffman even makes a very interesting narrative choice by having some real-world prominent Salem figures as not just cameos, but as crucial characters in the story.

Just like in Hoffman’s other novels, the writing here is vivid and gorgeous. Magic Lessons very much reads like a fairy tale for adults, but it is haunted by the all-too-real horrors and violence which occurred in this period. Discrimination and cruelty are featured in this book just as prominently as magic, and no amount of lovely language softens that.

This story isn’t as light and dreamy as Practical Magic, but it’s no less magical or compelling.  Independent and bold – despite the world around her indicating women should be anything but – Maria is a resolute, courageous protagonist, even if you disagree with some of her choices. 

This novel is a wonderful blend of three of my favorite components of a novel: magic, love, and historical fiction.

After all, three is said to be a very magical number. 

Katie Varnell


Katie is a Circulation Assistant at the Hadley Park branch. She loves musical theater, practicing yoga, and all desserts. She is always eager to hear movie and book recommendations and to chat about pop culture or cats.