The Barnes & Noble Review
Alice Hoffman's latest is a collection of interwoven stories that create a tapestry almost as satisfying and fully realized as a novel. The literal power of bewitchment in her novel-turned-movie, Practical Magic, reappears here in sustained but isolated moments that pack something much more earthly but almost as potent: hope. The central character of most of the tales is Gretel Samuelson, a girl local to Franconia, in Long Island. Misfortune plagues her otherwise unremarkable middle-class life, beginning in the very first story, "Dear Diary," when her parents split up and she must ride to the rescue of her best friend, Jill ("the pretty one"). When high school boys grab a Halloween-costumed Jill, Gretel hits them, her heavy Gypsy bracelets knocking one of them flat. The girls flee, and for the first time in months, Gretel feels great. Her knockout punch strikes her first blow for freedom from sorrow, from disappointing men and the thoughtless havoc they wreak. Taking fate in her own hands, however briefly, restores to Gretel the belief that her life is her own and that love might still be "a state of mind ready to grace anyone willing to accept it. Anyone who cares."
The wish that love is something a fierce-hearted person can make out of thin air both buoys and sinks Gretel through the next ten years encompassed by these stories. Through her parents' divorce, her father's remarriage, the death of her beloved grandmother, her life remains guided best by those she loves without having to try: her mother, Franny; her mother's inseparable younger cousin, Margot; andJill,who remains her best friend until the morning Gretel finally leaves New York. Makeshift relationships that substitute for family are familiar Hoffman territory, and she paints these bonds between women with a light but unforgettable touch.
Gretel flirts with bitterness but never succumbs to it, mainly because those around her refuse its bleak but tempting hand. Franny not only loses her husband to a younger, crasser woman; she is also diagnosed with cancer and still lives out her days a hopeless romantic, wishing on stars no one else can see. Margot, herself an abandoned wife who desperately wants a child, plays her sidekick role to the hilt, stepping in to mother Gretel when Franny is too ill. In the moments these women of three different generations share, Hoffman hits her most satisfying, if lightly melancholic notes. After they trim Margot's Christmas tree together, snow falls: "We all rushed to the front window to look. It was the kind of snow that you hardly ever see, so heavy and beautiful you fall in love with winter, even though you know you'll have to shovel in the morning." The snow that feels sublime despite the fact that they'll have to shovel it in the morning stands in for the collection as a whole. Each flake shimmers with an individual beauty before letting go to a tormenting hardship that equally defines the mood of this book.
Gretel's world falls apart and remakes itself into something sturdier and true. That balance between bad luck and good, between knowing cynicism and blind belief, is lost on her brother, Jason, the only male in the collection who gets his own story. By the time Jason takes over the narrative in "The Boy Who Wrestled with Angels," however, he's exactly what he declared himself and Gretel to be when their new stepmother dumped them from her car in an opening story. "Face it," Jason says, "we're lost." On the verge of entering Harvard on scholarship, Jason decides to stay put. Perversely, remaining on local soil only leads him down a lost path, and soon he's dealing drugs behind the local deli counter. For Jason, the "local" in the book's title means a shrinking point of view. Soon the magic awaiting discovery within the quotidian Hoffman's trademark style of epiphany has been usurped in Jason by drug dependency and, ultimately, a self-deceiving nature.
A different kind of self-discovery also haunts this sure-to-charm collection, and that is the one that awaits us in death. While doppelgängers surround each main character here (for Gretel there's Jill, for Franny there's Margot), two of the characters, in facing death, see a familiar countenance staring back at them. Each experiences his or her own second self hovering nearby a desolate angel from the life each dying character chose not to live escorts her to some other place. In another author's hands this depiction of death would surely feel forced, but in Hoffman's breezy prose, the twin of ourselves who fetches us from our failing bodies is more sensation than ghost, offering the reader that elusive kind of comfort that only fiction can provide.
In stories like "Bake at 350º," ghosts are more literal and exhibit a bitter sense of humor. Revenge, another thread weaving together Gretel's emerging sense of self, is their trump card. When Gretel's grandmother wills her own death by eating everything the doctor recommends against, she bargains for the life of Franny. When even that accomplishment isn't enough, she returns in Gretel's tumultuous imagination to practice some beyond-the-grave voodoo. The black magic she unleashes is humorous but jagged, and it's that combination that complicates the otherwise merely entertaining qualities of Local Girls. Each story is a bite-size pleasure, and the aura established by the sum of them is enjoyable, bittersweet, and lingering.
Elizabeth Haas is a writer and critic living in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Read an Excerpt
One thing I've learned is that strange things do happen. They happen all the time. Today, for instance, my best friend Jill's cat spoke. We were making brownies in the kitchen when we heard it say, Let me out. Well, we rushed to the back door and did exactly that. We experienced a miracle and now we're looking for more, although Franconia, the town we live in, is not known for such things. Jill and I have known each other our whole lives. One house separates our houses but we act as if it doesn't exist. We met before we were born and we'll probably still know each other after we die. At least, that's the way we're planning it.
My mother and I left for Atlantic City so quickly I didn't have time to call Jill. We told people we were on our way to visit an old aunt, but really our departure had something to do with love, or the lack of it, and the aunt doesn't even exist. I know other people whose mothers suddenly pack up when their fathers drink or scream, but for us this is more serious. My mother doesn't do things like go to Atlantic City. She doesn't order room service and cry. She once told me that anyone who gets married had better like herself, because there's nobody else in this world that she'll ever really know, not truly.
We stayed in our room in Atlantic City for three days, and didn't go outside once, thanks to room service. We ate like pigs and didn't even bother to brush our teeth until my mother's cousin Margot, who got a divorce last summer and changed the color of her hair to give herself an emotional lift, came to get us. She drove to New Jersey in the Ford Mustang convertible that she refused to let her ex have, since he'd taken her very soul and raked it over red-hot coals.
"Get dressed right now," she told us.
We were wearing our bathrobes and watching an old cowboy movie, which, for some reason, made my mother cry. Maybe it was all those men on horseback who were so steadfast and loyal. Their own men had disappointed them, but somehow Margot and my mother both had hope for improvement. Frankly, I had more faith in the horses.
"I mean now, Frances," Margot said, and because she meant business, my mother actually dressed and put on some lipstick and we went to a Chinese restaurant where the drinks came with little paper umbrellas, which I kept as a souvenir.
Listen to me, Gretel, Margot told me when we'd gone back to the room to pack and my mother was finally out of earshot. When a marriage breaks up, it's the children who suffer, so baby, hold on tight. That's why Margot was relieved that she and Tony had never had children, although she became teary whenever she saw a baby.
"Margot is my best friend, but she's completely full of baloney," my mother whispered as we were throwing our suitcases into the trunk. "Take it all with a grain of salt. Maybe even a whole shaker."
Say what you want about the Mustang, it may be gorgeous, but it has very little trunk space. I had to sit in the back seat with the hair dryer and the makeup case on my lap all the way to Franconia, but that didn't stop me from keeping my fingers crossed and wishing we'd wind up someplace other than home.
We're in Florida for one week, the week when the turtles die on the beach and there are jellyfish in the ocean. As soon as we checked into the hotel, my brother, Jason, who likes to pretend he's not part of our family, went out to study tide pools and no one has seen him since. My parents are here to try to revitalize their marriage, which seems a pretty impossible feat to all outside observers. Gretel honey, don't get high hopes, Margot had already warned me when she took me shopping for a bathing suit, a mission which can give anyone with a less than perfect body a complete nervous breakdown. When it's over, it's over, Margot told me, and I had the distinct feeling that she was right.
Long before the plane touched down in Miami we could hear our parents arguing, and at the hotel they locked themselves in their room. If you ask me, working so hard at being married can backfire. It certainly is making my father nastier than usual. Not that his bad temper affects me. I keep my own counsel. I go my own way. I order room service and eat Linzer tortes and shrimp scampi alone in the room I was supposed to be sharing with Jason, not that he was ever planning to show up. Even though I was across the hall from my parents, I could still hear them fighting.
I went out to the beach late, later than I'd be allowed to if anyone knew I was alive. That's where I met Jonathan Rabbit, who is now in love with me. He is known as Jack Rabbit, which makes me laugh out loud. Doesn't it figure that the boy who fell for me would be a rodent? He lives in Atlanta and is in the ninth grade, and frankly he's terribly boring. I let him kiss me once, but believe me, I did not hear bells. I only heard the jellyfish sloshing around in the water and the noisy beat of Jack Rabbit's heart.
Florida didn't do anything for my family, but at least it's starting to be spring. Jill and I are keeping our eyes open for miracles. Jack Rabbit calls me constantly and that is something of a miracle. He writes so often you'd think his fingers would start to cramp up. I bring his letters to school, so everyone is well aware that I have a boyfriend in Atlanta. They'll never meet him. They'll never know it's actually possible for a boy to be so boring you'd agree to kiss him just to get him to shut up. I should get paid to listen to him when he calls on the phone. I should get a dollar fifty an hour. Minimum.
Jill told me that when you're really in love, you know right away. I'm not exactly sure how this happens. Is it like a flash of lightning? Like an angel tapping you on the shoulder? Or is it similar to choosing a puppy? You think you're picking the cutest one, but really you wind up going home with the one who keeps insisting on climbing into your lap. That's how we got our dog, Revolver. We thought he was so crazy about us, but it turned out that Labrador retrievers adore everyone. Well, maybe that's what love is, a state of mind ready to grace anyone willing to accept it. Anyone who cares.
School's out. Hurray. Life, however, is still so boring that I'm writing to Jack Rabbit every day. I go to the pool with Jill and take along my notebook and write until I think I'm going blind, then jump into the deep end. We are not going on vacation because no one in my house is talking to each other, so going anywhere together is definitely out. My brother's on the summer science team at the high school, so he's never home. My father is on an exercise kick and has joined a gym, so he's never around either.
My mother and Margot and I spend a lot of time going to movies. It's dark and it's cool and no one knows if you're crying, except for the person sitting directly beside you. Margot buys me anything I want, even Jordan almonds, which are so terrible for your teeth. She's the kind of person who knows about love. She has men calling her in the middle of the night, but they're all no good, or so she says. Just like Jill, she insists she'll know when she meets the right man. But unlike Jill, she tells me exactly what love's evidence is. I'll just want to kiss him till I die. To me, this doesn't sound like something to hope for, but people seem to hope for it all the same.
Jill is camping with her parents, and has sent me a postcard that it has happened. The miracle we've been searching for, the great event, the angel's secret. It's love, it really is. It's the boy in the tent next to hers who she sneaks out to meet after her parents are asleep. I sit on my front stoop while Jill is away and think things over. I've smartened up and am no longer waiting for the mailman. Jack Rabbit isn't writing anymore. He went to camp to be a junior counselor and I guess he broke his arm or fell in love with somebody new. Doesn't it figure that I would miss his letters like crazy? Sometimes I read the old ones late at night, and I wonder what was I thinking when I got them. How could I have thought he was boring? Well, I'm the boring one now. When Jill comes back I may have to lie to her. I may tell her Jack Rabbit died in a canoeing accident. My name was the last word he said, or so they tell me. My name brought him comfort with his last dying breath.
Jill and I are not in the same class at school. We never are. The administration doesn't want people who like each other to be together. They think it builds character when they stick people who hate one another in the same room, day after day, and nobody winds up getting killed or maimed. I'm not supposed to know that Jill's mother is seeing a psychiatrist, just as Jill is not supposed to know my parents are no longer sleeping in the same room. My mother spends her nights on a quilt on my floor, and she doesn't cry until she thinks I'm asleep.
Recently, Margot and I went out for ice cream. We had butterscotch sundaes with vanilla ice cream. Margot asked for my advice. She had spotted my father at an expensive restaurant, the kind he'd never take us to, with some woman she'd never seen before and she didn't know whether or not to tell my mother. I have never been much of a tattletale myself, although I understand that there are times when the truth serves its purpose. This didn't seem to be one of those times. For all we knew, this woman could be some business associate, although Margot and I probably would have both been willing to bet our lives that she wasn't.
Don't tell. That was the advice I came up with. My mother was already crying and sleeping on the floor, what good would the truth do her now? Margot didn't eat any of her sundae, and when she offered it to me I realized I was sick to my stomach. I think I've pretty much figured out that in this world, it's better to stick to hot fudge.
On Halloween Jill wore all black and made ears out of felt which she glued to a plastic headband. She was a black cat. She had a tail that was braided out of three silk scarves. I borrowed thirty silver bangle bracelets from my grandmother. I was a fortune-teller. We should have suspected something when we saw the moon. It was orange and so big we couldn't believe it. It was like we could take one big step, and there we'd be: moon girls who had fallen off the rim of the world. My brother laughed at us. Weren't we a little too old for trick-or-treating? Well of course we were, but we didn't care. We went up and down the block, collecting candy; then we walked beyond the high school through the field so we could smoke cigarettes beside the creek. Jill had stolen the cigarettes from her mother's purse, and I had gotten the matches from my grandmother.
"As long as you're not smoking cigarettes," my grandmother had said to me, which pretty much ruined the whole thing. I couldn't enjoy a single puff. Grandma Frieda was visiting for the weekend and she had the ability to put a hex on any form of high jinks. She was sleeping on my floor too, and it was getting pretty crowded there in my room. I could never find my sneakers. I couldn't find my underwear. Every night, as I fell asleep, I'd hear bits of whispered conversation, and every single one seemed to include the word sorrow.
Jill had been practicing and knew how to blow smoke rings. She was blowing a misty ring when some guys from the high school intent on trouble approached. Jill looked older than she was, and even in costume, you could tell she was beautiful. The high school guys tried to kiss her, and when she refused, they grabbed her. The whole thing happened so fast I just sat there, as though I were the audience and the whole thing was a play. And then it wasn't. I hit one of the guys, and all of my silver bracelets were so heavy he fell backwards. The shock of me smashing one of them gave us time to run. We ran and ran, like we really could get to the moon if we had to. We ran until we turned into smoke; we could float across lawns and drift under windows and doors.
"I can't believe you did that," Jill said when we finally made it home. She had lost her tail and her ears, but her face was shining. "You hit him."
I felt great for days.
We don't do holidays. We go to my grandma Frieda's for Passover, but we skip Chanukah, which my father insists is trivial, and Thanksgiving, which he considers a meaningless ritual. We do, however, spend every Christmas at Margot's house. It's a holiday she feels entitled to celebrate since she was married to Tony Molinaro for all those years. My father never goes to Margot's, and this year Jason wasn't there either. It was just us, and we decorated the tree with all of Tony's mother's beautiful old ornaments. There's an angel that's always been my favorite, fashioned out of silvery glass. When Tony's mother was alive she assured me it would bring good luck to whoever hung it on the tree. Tony's mother always preferred Margot to her own son, and when they broke up she took to her bed and was dead by the following spring.
Even after Margot and Tony divorced, Margot always included her ex-mother-in-law in the festivities. Tony's mother must have been at least ninety. Her hands shook as she held out the angel. "Here's the thing about luck," she told me on her last Christmas. "You don't know if it's good or bad until you have some perspective."
This year we made a toast to the old lady and Margot actually cried. Right as we finished the tree, snow started to fall. We all rushed to the front window to look. It was the kind of snow that you hardly ever see, so heavy and beautiful you fall in love with winter, even though you know you'll have to shovel in the morning.
Margot had made a turkey with stuffing, a noodle kugel, and a white cake topped with coconut that looked like the snow outside. After dinner, she and my mother put on aprons and did the dishes and laughed. I let them listen to Elvis's Blue Christmas; I hardly ever saw my mother having a good time, so how could I complain?
In Jill's family Christmas was a big deal, and I knew when I went over to her house in the morning she'd have a dozen great presents to show me and I'd have to try not to be jealous. Jill and I had given each other bottles of White Musk, our favorite scent. I envied Jill just about everything, but I didn't feel jealous right then, listening to Elvis in Margot's house. Truthfully, there was nowhere else I'd rather be. Lucky for us, Margot lived right around the corner from us. Her house was our house, and vice versa, unless my father was at home. Margot and my mother intended to be neighbors forever; they had dozens of plans, but not all of their plans were working out.
I'd overheard my father talking on the phone. He was intending to leave as soon as the weather got better. As soon as he could break the news to us, he'd be gone. He was in a holding pattern, that's what he said, but he wasn't holding on to us, that much was certain. I didn't tell my mother what I'd learned. I didn't tell anyone. I wanted to see Margot and my mother dance in the kitchen when the dishes were done and drying on the rack. I wanted to see them throw their aprons on the floor.
That night, when we walked home, my mother put her arm around me and told me to wish on a star. She still believed in things like that. We stood there in the snow, and try as I might, I didn't see a single star. But I lied. I said that I did, and I wished anyway. We stood there while my mother tried in vain to see that same star. My fingers were freezing, so I put my hands in my pockets. The angel was there. I knew that if I tried to thank Margot, she'd tell me to cut it out, she'd say it was nothing, but it was definitely something to me.
It was late, but we could hear traffic on the Southern State Parkway, even though it was Christmas, and snowing so hard. You had to wonder who all these people in their cars were leaving behind and who they were driving toward, and if they knew that in the distance, the echo of their tires on the asphalt sounded like a river, and that to someone like me, it could seem like the miracle I'd been looking for.
Reprinted from LOCAL GIRLS by Alice Hoffman by permission of G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © 1999 by Alice Hoffman.