Dabbling in hocus-pocus is a bit like telling a white lie: it's okay under the right circumstances. And Alice Hoffman's aptly titled 11th novel is full of the right circumstances.
The Owens women have been witches for generations. But when Gillian and Sally are orphaned and sent to live with spinster aunts, they learn about their peculiar ancestry firsthand. Raised on superstition and magic, the girls become accustomed to finding lovesick women lined up at the back door and fetid potions brewing on the stove. Eventually they choose their own methods of rebellion: Gillian—fair, beautiful and free-spirited—breaks the heart of every boy in town before eloping at 18; Sally—dark, serious and sensible—tries to instill some normality into her life by marrying and having two daughters.
The sisters haven't seen each other for 18 years when Gillian—now thrice divorced—shows up in Sally's driveway with a dead man in the passenger seat of her Oldsmobile. From then on, Gillian, Sally and Sally's daughters—exact clones of their mother and aunt—find themselves in the throes of a series of inexplicable happenings.
Written with a light hand and perfect rhythm, Practical Magic wraps a fantastical cocoon around its readers, conjuring up luscious images with rhapsodic prose. Equally impressive is Hoffman's ability to poke fun at the ridiculous situations she creates: "The awful thing is," Sally thinks to herself, "her relationship with this dead man is deeper than anything she's had with any other man in the past 10 years."
Practical Magic has the pace of a fairy tale but the impact of accomplished fiction. (Putnam, $22.95)