The Style & Times of Alice Hoffman

By sheer accident, I wound up reading two of Alice Hoffman’s novels simultaneously: Practical Magic, from the earlier half of her canon, and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, her most recent novel until The Marriage of Opposites‘ publication just this August.

This reading coincidence was by no means deliberate. Rather, it was born of two quirks of mine.

No. 1–I’m nearly always reading 2-3 books at any given time. I’ve been doing this since I was a wee lil’ reader. I think it comes from wanting to have a book pre-positioned in any room I might enter. That way, in true lazy American fashion, I can plop into a seat with whatever volume happens to be nearest.

Or perhaps this habit is evidence of my expansive, all-embracing mind…. Yes, for vanity’s sake, let’s go with that one.

No. 2–I’m a borderline insomniac. For whatever reason, my subconscious sees my lying down to sleep as a cue to rev into hyperdrive. I cannot count the nights I’ve lain there, quietly seething with jealousy over my husband’s ability to slide into slumber with the ease of a newborn kitten. The one almost-fool-proof method I’ve found for gaining passage to Dreamland is reading. But there’s a trick to it: it has to be a book I love enough that it’s genuinely distracting, but not one I’m so hooked into that I wind up binge reading for hours, thereby defeating my original sleep-pursuing purpose.

So when insomnia struck earlier this week, Practical Magic seemed a perfect choice. I’ve read it before, so I knew I wouldn’t be gobbling it up to reach the conclusion. But the prose is elegant and wistful, so I knew it’d soothe my ruffled psyche. I wasn’t even thinking about the fact that my recently-begun new read was The Museum of Extraordinary Things.

But I’m thrilled to have stumbled into this dualistic reading experience; it proved a very interesting opportunity to analyze a writer’s stylistic variety across several decades of her oeuvre.

Truthfully, The Museum of Extraordinary Things is only my second read from Ms. Hoffman’s canon–a mistake that needs correcting, given what a fan of magical realism I am. I should add the caveat, too, that I’m currently just halfway through The Museum. So I’ll spare you any half-baked final assessments.

But even with 180 pages left in The Museum, I can already see distinct divergences between it and Hoffman’s earlier work. Nearly 20 years (Practical Magic was published in 1995, The Museum of Extraordinary Things in 2014) and significant stylistic differences separate the novels. In fact, had I not known the novels were penned by the same author, I’m not confident I would have recognized a shared voice–proof that writers are indeed always and invariably changing.

Of its many excellent features, perhaps Practical Magic‘s most unique is it’s fabulous omniscient writing voice–in fact, the first bit of Practical Magic I ever came across was an excerpt in Renni Browne and Dave King’s fantastic Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, used as an example of perfect omniscient voice. (By the way, if you aren’t familiar with Self-Editing and are a fiction writer, go and grab it IMMEDIATELY.)

I’ll be honest–I long ago dismissed the omniscient voice as one I’d never be interested in utilizing, since the broad-sweeping, all-knowing perspective it grants your story is bought at the steep price of intimacy with individual characters. And I was far more interested in really connecting reader and character than I was in providing readers with an all seeing eye.

But Practical Magic stands proof that omniscient voice doesn’t have to be stale. For all that Practical Magic‘s narrator is her own presence, a lens through which the main characters Sally and Gillian Owens are filtered, you as the reader nevertheless feel you know these women intimately and truthfully. There’s the most unique essence to the novel: the narrator’s affection for Sally and Gillian vibrates warmly through the prose, even as the narratorial command is so precise the reader feels him/herself to be the recipient of gently scrutinized truths about life. There is a sense of authority (Ha! Pun!) to the work that is somehow still kind and close to its characters, revealing their deepest secrets and most tender confessions with an incisive, compassionate eye.

And Practical Magic‘s prose is delicate and lovely, highly visual. I could just sink down into the cool of Hoffman’s words, each sentence so carefully and intricately creative in its construction that it’s reminiscent of unfurling petals. A dewy web in an early morning trellis. Really, the nearest comparison I can make is this: its smooth beauty carries you along like a river, frequently rippling over unique bits of imagery, sensory detail, and metaphor.

I am a huge fan of Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman’s movie-adaptation of the book. In fact, the first time I read Practical Magic as a high school student, I was disappointed, because what I really wanted was a novelization of the film I adored. But the movie captures none of the book’s ambivalent tension between the magical and realistic elements of the story. Where the movie leaves no ambiguity about whether the Owenses are endowed with magic, the book’s prose catches readers in that dream-like state where one is suspended without certainty of what is and is not real. I dream of being able to execute a similarly beautifully precise balance in my writing.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things couldn’t be more different. As the story centers around a young woman whose father runs–and incorporates her as an act in–what is essentially a freak-show, it holds that same mystical quality. But this is a much harsher, darker dream, and rides much closer to the real abuses of the world. That is not to say Practical Magic doesn’t have its own tragedy–death and abuse play their own role in those pages–but The Museum is somehow much more concrete in its tragedy, its collision with human wickedness. I won’t be offering any spoilers here, but suffice it to say, real, historic brutality (like early twentieth century labor tensions a lá Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle) rears its head. There’s no pretending the uglier elements of The Museum didn’t actually occur.

Paired with this is a much closer walk with The Museum‘s leading characters, Coralie and Eddie. Rather than taking a sweeping omniscient perspective, this novel’s chapters are divided between Eddie and Coralie, with each addressing the reader in both first and third person. The guiding narratorial hand of Practical Magic is noticeably absent, replaced by prose in which the reader is much more subject to the characters’ uncertainty. Though perhaps less distinctive than Practical Magic‘s approach, this more empathetic technique is hardly a poor one.

But while there are certainly many moments of golden prose in The Museum, Hoffman’s writing there is nowhere near as glittering as it is Practical Magic. But perhaps this suits the story Hoffman tells in The Museum: the unembellished way she treats the terrible makes it more terrible still, allowing tragedy to reveal itself baldly, undisguised by the flourish of too-pretty-words.

If I sound like I’m waffling on which of Hoffman’s styles I prefer, it’s because I am. Practical Magic holds a special place in my literary heart, so I find it difficult not to crave more of the same. This respect/desire combo is exacerbated by the fact that while I adore that crisply ethereal mode of writing, it is far outside my own instinctive writing style; much as I’d love to produce a magical realism novel, I’m not wholly confident it’s in me.

But the more incisive mode of writing in The Museum has its own value. Today, when I hit a particularly difficult point in the story, I actually closed the book for a moment, just to absorb the blow. There’s something to be said for the tactility of that kind of writing, too.

The good news for we readers is this: we don’t have to choose. I can go on reading Hoffman’s books in tandem, appreciating each for its own poignancy. And begin plotting (pun!) which Hoffman novel to pick up next.

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