In this prequel to Hoffman's hit Practical Magic, readers witness the birth of the Owens bloodline with Maria Owens in the 1600s, an English orphan whose adopted mother Hannah cultivates her power. Maria follows the man she loves to Salem, Massachusetts, where she invokes the curse that will haunt her family.
... the strongest in the trio of her novels about the Owens women ... Hoffman writes deftly, and often beautifully, about nature, and she can plot like, well, a witch, casting a spell on her reader to flip pages, reading ahead for plot twists. That said, the novel sometimes sags when Hoffman becomes enamored of her own research. The display of herbal lore and terminology, even for someone with an inherent interest, is at times heavy-handed. Still, Magic Lessons is a compelling reminder of the past, which as it turns out, is not distant enough from the present.
A brief biography in the first novel becomes, in Magic Lessons, a rich, continent-leaping epic of Maria’s life ... The historical irony provides a protracted Girl don’t go in there! brand of suspense; it’s enjoyable, if a little on the nose ... A lot happens, yet the plot doesn’t feel overstuffed. Storytelling is in Hoffman’s bones, and the skill with which she dispenses information and compresses time, so that a year passes in a sentence, so that a tragedy witnessed becomes the propeller for a hundred-page subplot, is (forgive me) bewitching. My current reality feels chaotic and confusing; to have a narrator take my hand and tell me that linden root and yarrow will cure a racing heart, that witches turn silver dull with their touch, is an undiluted pleasure ... But for all its delights, Magic Lessons is dark. Witch after witch suffers at the hands of ignorant, cruel me ... That this novel is both fantasy and history is crucial ... Witchcraft comes at a price to those who practice it, and with this novel, Hoffman reminds us that every woman, magical or not, pays, be it with her life, or how she must dress, or whom she must marry. We’ve always known that, for certain women, the cost is higher. This deeper subject is so resonant that, at times, the novel’s love theme struck me as contrived, even irrelevant, a vestige of a franchise that has grown darker and deeper. However, the disconnect did not inhibit my enjoyment; Hoffman’s book swept me away during a time I most needed it.
In Hoffman’s simple but luminous prose, all characters, even the villains, are not only vividly, but also compassionately, rendered. Descriptions of magic combine with herbology and folk remedy. Hoffman adeptly highlights that how one uses a talent, selflessly or selfishly, has a sweeping impact on many lives, meaning that one should always choose courage, and that love is the only answer.