Alice Hoffman Biography
Nationality: American. Born: New York City, 1952. Education: Adelphi University, Garden City, New York, B.A. 1973; Stanford University, California (Mirelles fellow), M.A. 1975. Awards: Bread Loaf Writers Conference Atherton scholarship, 1976.
Property Of. New York, Farrar Straus, 1977; London, Hutchinson, 1978.
The Drowning Season. New York, Dutton, and London, Hutchinson, 1979.
Angel Landing. New York, Putnam, 1980; London, Severn House, 1982.
White Horses. New York, Putnam, 1982; London, Collins, 1983.
Fortune's Daughter. New York, Putnam, and London, Collins, 1985.
Illumination Night. New York, Putnam, and London, Macmillan, 1987.
At Risk. New York, Putnam, and London, Macmillan, 1988.
Seventh Heaven. New York, Putnam, and London, Virago Press, 1991.
Turtle Moon. New York, Putnam, and London, Macmillan, 1992.
Second Nature. New York, Putnam, and London, Macmillan, 1994.
Practical Magic. New York, Putnam, and London, Macmillan, 1995.
Fireflies. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 1997.
Here on Earth. New York, Putnam, 1997.
Local Girls. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1999.
Horsefly. New York, Hyperion Books for Children, 2000.
The River King. New York, G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2000.
Uncollected Short Stories
"Blue Tea," in Redbook (New York), June 1982.
"Sweet Young Things," in Mademoiselle (New York), June 1983.
"Sleep Tight," in Ploughshares (Cambridge, Massachusetts), vol.15, no. 2-3, 1989.
Practical Magic, 1998.
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Alice Hoffman's female protagonists have much in common. They are all drawn to dangerous men: a saboteur, a gang leader, a drug-dealing older brother, a nihilistic singer. They are all estranged from their parents, though most have strong relationships with their grandparents or someone of their grandparents' age. These older people are often fortunetellers of some kind. There is a strong undercurrent of magic in Hoffman's work.
In Hoffman's first novel, Property Of, the unnamed narrator attaches herself to McKay, a gang leader whose life is dedicated to the notion of honor as the gang had adapted it to the violent world of The Avenue, gang territory on the edge of New York City. When she leaves McKay it is because his glittering image and his honor have both crumbled. Hoffman brings almost nothing new to this old-hat situation, and only in the scattered passages where the narrator meditates on deeper things does her language come alive. The neo-hardboiled style dialogue is undermined by an unrealistic candor between characters who hardly know one another. Hoffman tries to pass this off as cool detachment, but it is clearly narrative strategy; a way to delineate character without much development. Hoffman's interest in ceremonial or ritual behavior, and in personal myth-making that will continue to be a part of all her work is present here, though muffled by the screen of toughness. There is also the first of many magic charms and talismans: a locket with a human tooth inside given to the narrator by Monty, an older man who tries to look out for her.
Property Of 's narrator, like many of Hoffman's women, seeks a life of magic. She contrasts the "little magic" of herbs and that nature that fights its way up through the concrete with the "big magic" of alcohol and drugs. "Difficult to categorize, until, of course, the consequences are seen. The little magic only causes a smile, but the big magic always seems to end up in the slammer or at a wake." In the last sentence of the novel she smiles.
The Drowning Season is the story of Esther the White and her granddaughter Esther the Black. The generation between these two women, Esther the Black's parents, are both lost: her father to his compulsion to drown himself every summer, and her mother to drink and dream of escape to the desert. Esther the White and the caretaker who loves her try to help the younger Esther come to grips with the emptiness of her life.
Like The Drowning Season, Angel Landing is set on the shore of a large cove. Two women live in a nearly empty boarding house across the bay from a nuclear plant under construction. When the plant is sabotaged the younger of the women, Natalie, discovers who "the bomber" is and finds herself falling in love with him. This "dangerous" man works his way through his feelings of alienation through his commitment to Natalie. Aunt Minnie, the older woman and owner of the boarding house, encourages Natalie in the relationship, even when she knows the man is "the bomber." As in Property Of the parts of this novel that are timely—the protesting over the nuclear plant, the struggle for better conditions in an old age home—clutter the story and add little. And again there is the unbelievable openness: Finn, the "bomber," who had been completely closed up, speaks his first emotionally committed words to Natalie in front of five strangers at a Thanksgiving dinner. After a deus ex machina helps Finn escape prosecution, he and Natalie run off to Florida, ending the novel on a hopeful but vague note.
White Horses is a difficult novel. The writing is as emotional and poetic as Hoffman's best work, but there is no character with which a reader might comfortably identify, or even sympathize. Aversion or pity are the likely responses. Young Teresa spends her life waiting for an "Aria," a mythical kind of outlaw lover, whose image has been passed down to her from her mother. The mother passes up real love while she waits, surrendering the myth only as she is dying. Both Teresa and her mother believe Teresa's brother Silver is an Aria, and Teresa enters into an incestuous relationship with him. Mother and daughter are both caught between the romance of the wild outlaw lover and the harsh life of attachment to the self-centered cruel Silver. Teresa breaks away from this destructive love only in the last pages.
Fortune's Daughter is a story of nurturing, and of "female mythology" as the jacket copy reads. Rae Perry is pregnant by a cruel and dangerous man, Jessup. Here the older woman Rae (who has cut herself off from her parents) turns to is Lila, a fortune-telling woman whose illegitimate daughter was given up at birth. She helps Rae, though her tea-leaf reading turns up the image of a dead baby. The dead child, however, turns out to be Lila's daughter, and Lila has to choose between isolating herself with the ("actual") ghost of her dead child, or giving it up and accepting her childless life with her supportive husband—who had a dangerous reputation when she met him. (In all Hoffman's novels women are the real movers, the instigators. The men run in circles raising dust, but accomplish little.) Lila chooses the living. Rae does not cut herself off completely from Jessup, and their relationship is left an open question at the novel's end.
Turtle Moon again invokes the theme of magic and mysticism, this time in a community of divorcees, Verity, Florida, a place where sea turtles migrate during the month of May. When the sea turtles mistake "the glow of streetlights for the moon, people go a little bit crazy;" marriages crumble and affairs begin. The story of Verity is the story of Lucy Rosen and her twelve-year-old son Keith, who find out just how bad life can be when the turtles migrate. A woman in Lucy's apartment building, also a runaway wife from New York, is murdered and Lucy's son rescues the victim's baby daughter and runs off, making him suspect in the murder. When Verity native Julian Cash investigates the murder and the missing children, he becomes romantically involved with Lucy, and another of Hoffman's female protagonists is drawn to a reckless man.
In Second Nature, there's a primal blend of the mysterious and the commonplace as compelling as the moon-besotted turtles found in Turtle Moon. Stephen and Robin are a modern-day Beauty and the Beast; Stephen, now an attractive man, was a feral child raised by wolves and Robin the woman who falls under his spell. It is when Robin tries to hide Stephen away in the small island community where she lives that the love story unfolds. By the end of the story the astute reader has taken Hoffman's foreshadowing as the inevitable ending of a good fairy tale, and the magic has worked again.
In Hoffman's eleventh novel, Practical Magic, another tale of love, the magic is not so much practical as predictable. As in earlier novels, Hoffman's older generation of characters are seers. Sally and Gillian are two orphaned sisters who live with their two aunts, women who grow strange herbs to make their magical brews and who are visited by lovesick women seeking their love potions and charms. Shunned by superstitious classmates, Sally and Gillian finally flee the small New England town in an attempt to flee the mysteries of love, which is always one step behind them. They cannot escape the magic of love and of life, even when it takes a malevolent form. Unlike earlier Hoffman stories, by the end of the story the overwhelming dose of magic becomes as hard to swallow as the aunts' mysterious love potions.
Hoffman seems content to rework her favored themes and ideas again and again, but usually manages to keep them fresh. Of the several tellings of the Hoffman story, Fortune's Daughter is surely the finest, with The Drowning Season not far behind. In attempting to keep her ideas always fresh, Hoffman's strengths at times seem to verge on self parody, seen occasionally in At Risk and Seventh Heaven.
—William C. Bamberger,
updated bySandra Ray
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