53 pages 1 hour read

Alice Hoffman

The Rules of Magic

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2017

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Summary and Study Guide



American writer Alice Hoffman wrote The Rules of Magic (2017) as the prequel to her acclaimed 1995 novel Practical Magic. It forms part of the four-part Practical Magic series of books, which tell the story of the magically gifted Owens family and the curse that binds them and their lovers over successive generations. The Rules of Magic narrates the youth of Frances and Jet, the aunts whom Practical Magic protagonists Gillian and Sally are sent to live with, in addition to that of their brother, Vincent. The book achieved both commercial success and renown, becoming an instant New York Times bestseller and a Reese’s Book Club pick. Following the book’s publication, Hoffman’s desire to explore the Owens women’s world further resulted in Magic Lessons (2020), a prequel to the prequel, detailing 17th-century ancestor Maria Owens’s story, and The Book of Magic (2021), a sequel to Practical Magic.

Hoffman wrote The Rules of Magic 22 years after Practical Magic owing to readers’ inquiries about what happened to the Owens women and the desire to be steeped further into their world. Given the gap between their publications, readers such as NPR reviewer Amal El-Mohtar experience a return to their reading selves at an earlier stage of life. While El-Mohtar was occasionally frustrated that the newer novel contradicts elements of Practical Magic and that a reconciliation of “the differences was sometimes distracting,” she admired Hoffman’s prose, which is “as tender, dreamy and sweet as ever, laced with the sting of vinegar and broken glass” (El-Mohtar, Amal. ‘“Rules of Magic’ Blends the Charm of the Familiar with New Enchantments.” NPR, 2017). She also enjoyed the experience of “interlocking nostalgias this book explores and provokes” with regard to the Owens aunts’ past and memories of childhood reading (El-Mohtar).

This study guide uses the Simon & Schuster Kindle edition, published in 2017.

Plot Summary

Susanna Owens, living in 1950s New York, has attempted to escape her family legacy by denying her magical abilities and marrying a man she respects rather than one she loves. This will ensure that she escapes the Owens family curse, which brings death to those who are beloved by an Owens woman. Susanna and her psychiatrist husband, Dr. Burke-Owens, aim to raise their three children entirely without magic. However, this backfires, as ornery Frances has a special relationship with birds, sensitive Jet can read others’ thoughts, and dashing Vincent cannot help performing magic tricks. The children demand to know who they are and cannot pass up an invitation to Susanna’s aunt Isabelle’s house on Magnolia Street in Massachusetts. There, though the Owenses are shunned and feared by the locals, Aunt Isabelle’s midnight plant remedies are also in demand for those suffering from afflictions of the body or heart.

That summer, the children learn the truth of their family and its curse, dating from their 17th-century ancestor Maria Owens, which dooms anyone an Owens loves to an early death. Vincent responds to this news by losing his virginity and beginning multiple affairs with women he does not care about, including a distant cousin, April Owens. Unbeknownst to him for many years, Vincent’s liaison with April results in the conception of Regina Owens, the mother of Gillian and Sally, the protagonists of Practical Magic. While Jet and Frances vow to never fall in love, this resolution doesn’t last long once Jet meets and instantly connects with Levi, the son of Reverend Willard, who is descended from the Hathorne line of witch-hunters that persecuted the Owens family in the 17th century.

Back in New York City, Jet and Levi meet up in secret, despite stern and sinister prohibitions from both sets of parents. Trying to keep them from spending the night of Jet’s 17th birthday at the Plaza Hotel, Susanna and Dr. Burke-Owens cause a horrific car accident that kills both them and Levi. The sole survivor, Jet grieves Levi for the rest of her life, never allowing herself to love again. As she continues to visit Levi’s tomb in Massachusetts, she finally strikes a rapport with his father, the reverend, and both find a sense of peace.

Meanwhile, Frances puts off being with her school love, Haylin, because she fears the Owens curse will smite him. She allows him to go to Harvard without her, and while she becomes jealous of his fiancée, Emily Flood, she does nothing to prevent the marriage. Instead, after her parents’ death, she and Jet begin an herbal-cures store in a small Greenwich Village house. Vincent lives there, too, and is lost to drink and dark magic until he embraces the truth of his gay identity and falls in love with a man called William Grant.

When, in 1969, Vincent’s number is called and he is due to be drafted into the Vietnam War, Haylin, who is now a doctor, intervenes to grant him a passage to Germany. Vincent moves to France, and, with the help of Susanna’s childhood friend Agnes, he achieves a sort of death that enables him to be reborn under a new identity and escape from the Owens curse. William lives with him under this new identity.

Frances and Haylin agree that their love is too strong to give up on and vow to ride out the Owens curse as non-cohabiting lovers. The sisters move to the Magnolia Street house, where they take up their late aunt Isabelle’s medicine trade. Haylin soon joins them in town as Frances’s lover and a practicing doctor. When he realizes that he is dying from cancer, he and Frances marry and live out the rest of his days together.

Grief-stricken Frances is surprised to receive a phone call from Sally and Gillian Owens, who have just lost their parents in a tragic accident. The girls come from California to Massachusetts to live with Frances and Jet and soon become accustomed to a magical way of life.

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