42 pages 1 hour read

Alice Hoffman

Practical Magic

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide


Practical Magic is a 1995 magical realism novel by American writer Alice Hoffman. The narrative follows two sisters who are raised in a family of witches and must come to terms with their family’s heritage, their place in the community, and the trials of love and loss, all while growing up and raising the next generation. Following the novel’s success, Hoffman wrote two prequels and a sequel, completing the four-part Practical Magic series. The novel was also adapted into a film starring Sandra Bullock and Nicole Kidman in 1998, which became a cult classic. The novel deals with themes of destructive love, family dynamics, tradition, independence, and growth.

This guide uses the 2021 Scribner edition.

Content Warning: The source text contains depictions of sexual and domestic assault.

Plot Summary

After their parents die in a fire, sisters Sally and Gillian Owens go to live with their eccentric aunts, Frances and Bridget. Due to their magical abilities, the Owens family is treated with suspicion in their Massachusetts town, and Sally and Gillian dream of a conventional life. However, women from the town come to the house looking for love spells, which are the aunts’ specialty. Even when they’re sent away, Sally and Gillian secretly watch their aunts’ spells and rituals while hiding on the stairs. When their own abilities become apparent at school, the other students bully and ostracize the sisters, mirroring the way the townspeople avoid the elder Owenses.

As they grow up, Gillian becomes a beautiful and independent heartbreaker, and Sally retreats into herself until she meets and marries a man named Michael. Gillian, meanwhile, leaves home for a brief marriage, then goes through a string of unhealthy relationships and temporary addresses. Sally and Michael have two children named Antonia and Kylie and live happily together in the Owens house until Michael’s sudden death due to a drunk driver. Devastated and experiencing depression, Sally takes her children and moves away to New York to start a new life.

Antonia and Kylie grow into teenagers; unlike Sally and Gillian, their relationship is antagonistic and unbalanced due to Antonia’s cruelty. Kylie finds solace in her lone friend, Gideon. One day, Sally notices several omens of change shortly before long-absent Gillian arrives on Sally’s doorstep and announces that the man she loves, Jimmy, is dead in the backseat of her car. She believes she caused his death by giving him belladonna, which she fed him to stop his drinking and abusive behavior. Sally helps Gillian bury Jimmy’s body in her back garden beneath a lilac bush, and Gillian moves into Sally’s house.

Gillian becomes close with Kylie, inciting Sally’s jealousy, and catches the attention of Antonia’s biology teacher, Ben Frye. After Kylie’s 13th birthday, when Gillian cuts Kylie’s hair short and dyes it blonde to mirror her own style, tensions between the youngest generations of Owens women boil over. Kylie becomes more sensitive to the emotions of others and starts to perceive the presence of Jimmy’s ghost in the garden, especially around the lilacs. His influence causes further conflict and antagonism within the household. Sally cuts down the lilacs out of desperation.

A brief flashback to two centuries prior establishes the Owenses’ heritage, detailing the arrival of Maria Owens and her subsequent ostracization by the other villagers. The aunts send Kylie a birthday gift, a portrait of Maria that had long hung in their home. The atmosphere at home improves, and Sally and Gillian come together again. After Kylie experiences a terrifying assault, she turns to Antonia for help, and she and Antonia repair their relationship as well. Gillian and Ben begin seeing each other, and Ben asks Gillian to move in with him.

After a period of harmony, the Owenses’ peace is disrupted again when a police officer, Gary Hallet, arrives in town looking for Jimmy. He and Sally fall in love despite their conflicts of interest. Later, Gary intentionally misidentifies a dead body as Jimmy to protect Sally and Gillian from any consequences for his death. The novel’s climax occurs when the lilacs bloom again and Jimmy’s body begins rising from the garden. Sally and Gillian call their aunts for help putting his spirit to rest for good. The aunts confirm that Gillian couldn’t have been responsible for Jimmy’s death after all, as the dosage of belladonna she gave him was correct. Together, three generations of Owens women brew a potent mixture that dissolves his body, and then they cover the space with garden stones, resolving the issue for good. In the end, Gillian marries Ben, and Gary comes back to be with Sally as the family returns to the Owens house in Massachusetts to celebrate Thanksgiving.

With elements of magical realism and flashbacks throughout, the narrative establishes themes of family loyalty, convention versus independence, and the destructive power of love as it follows three generations of Owens sisters.

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