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From Barnes & NobleThe 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.