I immediately went back and read the book, and was glad I’d done things in that order. The movie gave me a house and garden—and kitchen dance—to love. The book gave me a more in-depth look at Sally (Sandra Bullock) and Gillian (Nichole Kidman) Owens, and the misfortune that follows them made more sense. But still…what about the aunts?
The Owens women have always had grey eyes, an intrinsic understanding of hedge witch spellwork, and bad luck in love. Like all the other Owens women, Frances and Jet are witches descended from Salem escapee Maria Owens. More than 300 years ago, Maria was seduced and abandoned by Salem trial judge John Hathorne (real-life ancestor of Nathaniel Hawthorne, who added a “w” in his name to avoid comparison).
The only Owens male in centuries was the third child of Susanna, an Owens who fled Massachusetts as soon as she could, desperate to remove herself from the stigma clinging to her family name. This is where The Rules of Magic story begins.
In New York City during the 1960s, Susanna Owens knows that her three children are dangerously unique.
To protect them, Mom has a myriad of rules: “No walking in the moonlight, no Ouija boards, no candles, no red shoes, no wearing black, no going shoeless, no night-blooming flowers, no amulets, and no reading books about magic, no cats, and no crows. And no venturing below 14th Street.”
Franny, the oldest, pale as porcelain, with “blood-red” curly hair and “an ability to commune with birds,” tries to abide by those rules. So does the shy beauty, Jet, whose knack to reading people’s thoughts helps her stay out of trouble.
But little brother Vincent, as charismatic as a newborn that a hospital nurse tried to steal him for herself, has his own ideas. He’s barely a teenager before he’s climbing out his bedroom window, to sneak below 14th street and strum his guitar on street corners in Greenwich Village.
When Franny turns 17, in accordance with generations of family tradition, she is summoned to spend the summer at the family manor with the current matriarch, Aunt Isabelle, and she gets permission to bring her siblings with her.
Aunt Isabelle is completely different from their mother. She allows the children to hone their magical skills, shows them how to make black soap and which herbs will cause a married man to leave his wife.
More dramatically, their rebellious cousin April, confirms the family curse. Any man who loves an Owens is doomed. Then they find Maria’s journal, in which she urges her descendants to “fall in love whenever you can.” Talk about your summer of transformation. What teenager can resist falling in love—but even if it means your lover dies?
The contradiction between curse and command is at the heart of Franny, Jet, and Vincent’s lives.
In the summer that they go to stay at Aunt Isabelle, at least four local boys suffer shocking deaths.
Aunt Isabelle is calmly fatalistic about the whole thing, and encourages the girls to keep loving boys anyway, saying,
“When you truly love someone and they love in return you ruin your lives together. That is not a curse. It’s what life is, my girl.”
The Rules of Magic is the perfect read for Halloween. There’s magic, yes. But it’s set against the historical backdrop of real events like the Vietnam War, draft evasion and San Francisco’s Summer of Love. The whole novel is a commingling of dreamy, lyrical fairy tale and real-life struggles.
The end of the story was satisfying, and I was pleased that it led all the way up to the start of Practical Magic, so we can see how Sally and Gillian’s story begins.
Most importantly for me, the characters started flawed, and, despite their growth, they still weren’t perfect. I loved Franny, Jet and Vincent for all the more for those chinks in their power.
Next week I'll be posting NaNoWriMo story starter tips to get ready for November. Then I'll drop back to October and talk about Dia de Los Muertos, and customs for honoring ancestors in Mexico and the Southwest.
See you next week. Get those Halloween/Samhain decorations up! IF you'd like to post photos, I'd love to see them.