Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker

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Evelyn Harbinger sees nothing wrong with a one-night stand. At 149 years old, Eve may look like she bakes oatmeal cookies in the afternoon and dozes in her rocking chair in the evening, but once the gray hair and wrinkles are traded for jet-black tresses and porcelain skin, she can still turn heads as the beautiful girl she once was. Can’t fault a girl for having a little fun, can you?
 
This is all fine and well until Eve meets Justin, ...
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Petty Magic: Being the Memoirs and Confessions of Miss Evelyn Harbinger, Temptress and Troublemaker

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Overview

Evelyn Harbinger sees nothing wrong with a one-night stand. At 149 years old, Eve may look like she bakes oatmeal cookies in the afternoon and dozes in her rocking chair in the evening, but once the gray hair and wrinkles are traded for jet-black tresses and porcelain skin, she can still turn heads as the beautiful girl she once was. Can’t fault a girl for having a little fun, can you?
 
This is all fine and well until Eve meets Justin, who reminds her so much of a former lover that one night is no longer enough. Eve’s coven has always turned a blind eye to her nighttime mischief, but this time they think she’s gone too far—and they certainly don’t hesitate to tell her so. Dodging the warnings of family and friends, Eve must also defend her sister, Helena, when another beldame accuses Helena of killing her own husband sixty years before.
 
As the evidence against Helena begins to pile up, Eve distracts herself by spending more and more nights—and days—romancing Justin as her former self.  There are so many peculiar ways in which Justin is like Jonah, her partner behind enemy lines in World War II and the one true love of her life.  Experts in espionage, Jonah and Eve advanced the allied cause at great personal sacrifice.  Now Eve suspects that her Jonah has returned to her, and despite the disapproval of her coven and the knowledge that love with a mortal man can only end in sorrow, she can’t give him up.  But can she prove it’s really him?
 
In this captivating tale of adventure and timeless romance, novelist Camille DeAngelis blends World War II heroics with witchcraft and wit, conjuring a fabulously rich world where beldames and mortal men dare to fall in love.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Readers who endure the extensive Lake Wobegon-style exposition that launches DeAngelis's second novel (where every witch is above average) will be rewarded with a moving and witty love story. Evelyn is a randy old witch who uses her powers to appear young and pick up men at bars. When she meets Justin, the new proprietor of a local antique shop, she believes that he may be the reincarnation of her long-lost love, Jonah. Eve's narration alternates between the present-day romance and WWII spy stories as members of her coven come out with a shocking accusation against her sister, Helena. DeAngelis (Mary Modern) gives Eve an engaging narrative voice, though the frequent use of British terms like "loo," "gent," and "mobile" is jarring given Eve's supposed American origins. These minor flaws detract only slightly from the core stories of love and deceit, enhanced by DeAngelis's charming prose. (Oct.)
Publishers Weekly
Readers who endure the extensive Lake Wobegon–style exposition that launches DeAngelis's second novel (where every witch is above average) will be rewarded with a moving and witty love story. Evelyn is a randy old witch who uses her powers to appear young and pick up men at bars. When she meets Justin, the new proprietor of a local antique shop, she believes that he may be the reincarnation of her long-lost love, Jonah. Eve's narration alternates between the present-day romance and WWII spy stories as members of her coven come out with a shocking accusation against her sister, Helena. DeAngelis (Mary Modern) gives Eve an engaging narrative voice, though the frequent use of British terms like "loo," "gent," and "mobile" is jarring given Eve's supposed American origins. These minor flaws detract only slightly from the core stories of love and deceit, enhanced by DeAngelis's charming prose. (Oct.)
Library Journal
New England witch Evelyn "Eve" Harbinger doesn't look a day over 149, especially when she uses her magical "oomph" to make herself look 25. Eve spends her golden years at home with her sisters or going home with younger men. When her neighbor's twentysomething nephew comes to town, Eve finds herself enchanted by the boy and his resemblance to her first love, a dashing World War II spy. DeAngelis (Mary Modern) creates a compelling secondary story line revealing Eve's work behind enemy lines and her tragic love affair with her Allied partner, Jonah. In current-day Blackabbey, an accusation that Eve's oldest sister killed her long-dead husband causes unrest among the coven. VERDICT Part Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, part Bedknobs and Broomsticks, DeAngelis's second novel uses witchcraft to illuminate a woman whose wrinkles belie the passionate, adventurous girl she still is on the inside. Recommended for fans of magical realism—emphasis on the magic.—Karen Kleckner, Deerfield P.L., IL
Kirkus Reviews

Elderly witch who uses her powers to seduce young men falls hard for a chap who bears an uncanny resemblance to a long-lost love.

A spritely 149 years young, Eve Harbinger certainly believes in getting the most out of her golden years. A grand dame from a venerable family ofbeldames, she lives among her own kind in a secret warren in New York City and spends her evenings on the prowl. Using magic to transform herself into the dewy beauty she once was, she preys on the struggling actors and frat boys she finds in Manhattan nightspots—making sure to leave her bewildered, satiated playthings before dawn. She also spends a fair amount of time in her ancestral town of Blackabbey, N.J., surrounded by her clan. It is in Blackabbey that she first spies Justin, an agreeable recent college grad working at the family antique store. He's cute and a dead ringer for Jonah, the great love of her life who she met when they were both spies in Europe during World War II. Jonah knew who andwhatEve was, and her special skills helped them get out of many a tight spot during the war. But sadly not all. Against the advice of her family, she starts a relationship with Justin, using all her strength to stay young in his presence. He's smitten, while she wonders if he really is a reincarnation of Jonah and a second chance at happiness. Meanwhile, there is a crisis in her coven as her sister Helena is accused of a decades-old crime. The Harbinger gals band together to protect one of their own, even as the truth finds a way of asserting itself.

Sure, the plot could stand some pruning, but DeAngelis (Mary Modern, 2007) cleverly conjures up a parallel—and fun!—supernatural world within our own, making Eve a memorable, imperfect heroine.

From the Publisher
“A moving and witty love story…charming prose.”
Publishers Weekly

“An amusing romp!”—Booklist

Part Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, part Bedknobs and Broomsticks, DeAngelis's second novel uses witchcraft to illuminate a woman whose wrinkles belie the passionate, adventurous girl she still is on the inside. Recommended for fans of magical realism—emphasis on the magic.
Library Journal

"A charming curiosity shop of a novel, packed to bursting with secret histories and glittering marvels. With Petty Magic, Camille DeAngelis has given us a glimpse into a strange and enchanting world. It's dangerous good fun, and well worth getting lost in."
—Jedediah Berry, author of The Manual of Detection

"Love, magic, history, witches: it's all here, between the covers of this lovely book. Updike might have written it, if he'd had a better sense of humor."
—Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307454232
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 10/5/2010
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 9.52 (w) x 11.28 (h) x 1.11 (d)

Meet the Author

Camille DeAngelis is the author of the novel Mary Modern. She received an M.A. in writing at the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 2005, and her first-edition guidebook, Moon Ireland, was published in 2007. She lives in New Jersey.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter One
 
“All witchcraft comes from carnal lust,
which is in women insatiable”
 
Witch, n. 1. Any ugly and repulsive old woman, in a wicked league with the devil. 2. A beautiful and attractive young woman, in wickedness a league beyond the devil.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
 
There are many misconceptions of which I must disabuse you, but the most offensive concerns the wands and warts and black pointed caps. Some of us may be wizened and rather hairy in unfortunate places, but we ’re certainly no uglier than the rest of you lumps.
 
I look grandmotherly enough myself though, for it’s a rare morning I don’t nab a seat on the uptown 103—and when I am compelled to stand, the respectable citizens around me will grouse on my behalf at the bad manners of those buffoons claiming knee injuries or feigning deafness. As I disembark I wish the respectable ones a pleasant day, and I can see I remind them of their dear great-aunties. Don’t I look like the sort who bakes oatmeal cookies by the gross, slips a fiver into your birthday card? Nobody ever has an inkling, do they?
 
Some nights I ride the bus a third time, but you wouldn’t recognize me then. I’ll tell you how I do it. First I run a crooked forefinger over these travertine teeth, so when I look into the mirror over the mantel I can flash my old Pepsodent smile. Then I kick off my orthopedic shoes, say the right words to shrug off this sagging elephant hide, and in a moment I’m lithe as a teenager again. Thus liberated (and three inches taller besides), I take a long hot bath with bubbles and candles, draw concentric hearts in the steam on the mirrors, and spend an hour or more lounging about my bedroom with party clothes strewn across the unmade bed and the contents of my makeup case all over the vanity table. When I’m finally dressed, perfumed, and done up, I survey myself once more in the mantel mirror. Can’t help grinning like a feline at what I see. The beldame has sharpened her knives!
 
So I go out and avail myself of some delicious little boy I’ve found at a bar I’ve never been to before and will never visit again. Some nights it’s cinnamon vodka in china teacups and other times I’ll settle for a two-dollar draft—not that I ever pay for my own drinks, mind! I don’t just go for the pretty ones, either; he ’s got to sustain my attention for the hours it takes for three or four rounds and a scintillating tête-à-tête, a cab ride home (his place, always his), and a lively tussle in the sack.
 
You ought to know I never go for the ones who’re already taken, no matter where their eyes might wander. Wouldn’t be right. But I watch how men and women alike guard their lovers: he spots another man eyeing his girlfriend’s cleavage, drapes his arm over her shoulders, and looks daggers at the interloper; she sees a single girl like me merely glancing at her man, shoots me a glare, and kisses him midsentence. How primitive it is, the way they lay claim to one another.
 
Not me, though. I’m only asking for the night. Not even, because I leave as soon as he falls asleep. At daybreak I find the city is at its bleakest: through the window of a speeding cab I see the flickering neon of a twenty-four-hour diner peopled with insomniacs, raccooneyed girls teetering home on broken heels, men too sauced to bother ducking into alleyways to relieve themselves. Even at this ungodly hour the taxi driver is on his mobile. I lean my still-smooth forehead against the frosted window, the ghosts of his hands roving under my evening garb.
 
My taste varies by the night. Sometimes I set my eye on a playboy and revel in my triumph when he loses sight of every other girl in the club. (Aren’t I doing them all a favor? And doesn’t he deserve the shame and indignation he’ll feel when he rings the number I’ve left him and the woman who answers says, “Good afternoon, Greenacres
Funeral Home”?) On other occasions I mark the loneliest boy in the room and take a purer kind of pleasure in alleviating his melancholy.
 
There are other things you ought to know. We don’t even use our broomsticks for their ostensible purpose, let alone as a means of nocturnal transport. We do not shoot craps with human teeth. We do not thieve the peckers of men who’ve spurned us and squirrel them away in glass jars. Think of us as sibyls or seraphs: fearsome, oh yes, but more or less benevolent. I may use magic to retrieve my youth, but when these boys climb into bed with me, they do so unenchanted.
 
Chapter Two
 
Blackabbey
 
My father lasted longer than average, and so I have two sisters. We are evenly spaced at eleven months: Helena is the eldest; then Morven, who lives with me on the Lower
East Side; and then me. Helena is 151 but she still runs a B and B in the house we inherited from our great-auntie Emmeline, the house we grew up in. Harbinger House, says the sign beneath the porch light; rather ominous, I’ll admit, but the most traumatic thing that ever transpired there involved a holiday turkey that broke out of the oven.
Featherless and terrified out of its last wit, our would-be dinner rampaged through the downstairs rooms and sent all the family shrieking for cover before Helena could put an end to it. Good thing our china never breaks.
 
Blackabbey, the town’s called now: a spurious name for a place off the Jersey turnpike. There was a community of Franciscans there at some stage, but who knows why they named it Blackabbey—after all, no plague ever decimated their number. But Blackabbey is a far better name than Harveysville, which is what the town was called up until the
FirstWorldWar. “Harveysville” sounds like a hamletful of inbreds.
 
Harvey was the name of the innkeeper who supposedly put up George Washington two nights before that great man crossed the Delaware. The inn is still there, stodge central, every wall covered with plaques boasting of its one famous guest who only stopped in for a pint of ale, if he stopped at all. Even in the eighteenth century, on the surface at least, it was a dull little town full of ordinary people. Since the mid-1950s, however, Blackabbey has been rather renowned for its antiques. Interior designers, ladies of leisure, and middle-aged friends-of-Oscar make the two-hour bus ride south from Manhattan to peruse those quaint and cozy shops, and it’s the moneyed sort who fill Helena’s B and B every weekend.
 
This little shopping mecca wasn’t there while we were growing up, of course. Back then the mews was known as Deacon’s Alley, and there were a bookbinder, a pharmacist, and a few other stores with dust-filmed windows that seemed to be open only one day a week for a quarter of an hour at a time and sold things nobody would have wanted to buy anyway. The streets were unpaved and we walked knee-deep in horse dung.
 
But our town has more of a sense of humor now than it did in Washington’s day. The Blind Pig Gin Mill, which is almost as old as the inn, has a very official-looking plaque by the front door that reads: HERE AT THE BLINK PIG GIN MILL, ON THE 21ST OF FEBRURARY 1783, UPON THE SECOND STOOL FROM THE END, ALEXANDER HAMILTON GOT PISS-ASS DRUNK
 
Seems we’re the only ones who appreciate the change, living as long as we do.
 
Signposted from the main street is BlackabbeyMews, where all the shops are. If you turn the corner just after the Harveysville Inn, you’ll enter a narrow cobblestone alley with cheerily painted row homes on either side, the first-floor windows full of typewriters, gramophones, and landscapes in gilded frames. White geraniums tumble from the second-floor window boxes. The alley hasn’t been paved since the Revolution, so watch out for rogue cobblestones. At the end of the lane is a confectionery-café, my niece Mira’s place actually. There are outdoor tables where the aforementioned city folk sip bowls of chilled carrot-ginger soup under an oak tree that is even older than I am.
 
One store specializes in antique and collectible toys (a set of shiny tin soldiers lined up inside an elliptical railroad track, red painted sleds for decoration only), and others carry racks of moth-eaten theatrical attire and vintage wedding gowns; there ’s even a tiny haberdashery full of trilby hats. Other stores deal in fine and costume jewelry, rings and earbobs of clear green glass that throw bright spots on the walls in the afternoon light.
 
But there’s only one spot along this row where you can find a seventeenth-century alchemy kit alongside a pack of Garbage Pail Kids trading cards, only one place where you might prick your finger on a stuffed porcupine. Fawkes & Ibis, says the hand-painted sign that swings above the door. Est. 1950. Antiques, Collectibles, Curiosities.
And beneath, in much smaller lettering: Ask No Questions.
This one is my favorite.
 
Fawkes and Ibis was the first antiques store here. Harry Ibis is an Irish Jew who hasn’t boarded an airplane since the close of the Second WorldWar, and Emmet Fawkes is an Afroed malcontent who hobnobs with grave robbers and maintains an extensive collection of Victorian smut. You’ll generally find Fawkes seated on a low stool out on the sidewalk, either chatting with prospective patrons or grumbling to himself about the rodent problem. When you greet him he may answer you, or he may not, and either way you mustn’t take it personally. You open the door and part a heavy velvet curtain with dust bunnies flecking the hem, and as you enter the front room you’re hit with the smells of stale incense, mothballs, and old men.
 
The window display never quite typifies the wonderland within: theremight be a gilded birdcage full of Christmas ornaments, a Deco tea set, maybe a concertina or a hurdy-gurdy. Venture in, and above your head is the strangest chandelier you’ll ever see, a Leuchterweibchen, a wooden mermaid with an enigmatic expression and antlers sprouting from her shoulder blades. I hope nobody ever buys it. The shelves behind the counter are cluttered with molting taxidermies and various items pilfered from med school labs, eyeballs and eardrums lolling about in crusty glass jars, and cork-stopped medicine bottles full of sticky brown gook (fig candy laxative or honey-cherry-balsam compound typewritten on the yellowed labels). There are old leatherbound books in languages neither owner can read, heavy ornate keys to doors that may never be locked (or unlocked) again, gargoyles salvaged from the rubble of architectural progress. Fawkes takes especial pride in a bird he claims is the penultimate dodo.
 
The place is chockablock, all right, and you might even call it cluttered, but don’t dare call it a junk shop. Every object in the room has a history worth knowing, if you only know how to read it. Sometimes the people who’ve owned the books in this shop leave little clues between the pages, and not just love notes or pressed flowers. You might come upon an unused Amtrak ticket tucked between the pages of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or a sprinkling of crumbs along the gutter inside The Complete Engravings, Etchings, and Drypoints of Albrecht Dürer. Makes you wonder what kind of person noshes on a salami sandwich over The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
 
Browsing Fawkes and Ibis always gets me feeling a little melancholy, though I suppose that’s part of why I adore the place. No, I’ll never again wander through the cobbled lanes and crowded markets of the cathedral cities, never sip another green chaud in some Nouveau café with chandeliers knotted in cobwebs and flies in the sugar pots. Our psychic stamina is not without limit, you see. I could poof in and out of public loos from San Francisco to Samarkand, go antiquing to my heart’s content, but then there’d be no oomph left over for taking the wrinkles out on a Saturday night. Crooked fingers, crooked priorities; what can I say?
 
• • •
 
On this particular afternoon I’m on no particular errand, only that I’m home for the weekend and haven’t been to Fawkes and Ibis in a while. It’s the twenty-third of June, and the air is alive with the scent of honeysuckle and the excitement of children newly sprung from the classroom. The little hellions race one another down the avenue, their smooth limbs and happy faces dappled by the sunshine through the maples, and the sound of their laughter puts a smile on my face.
 
Mira is out clearing tables, and she gives me a peck on the cheek as I make my way down the alley. There are other cries of “Auntie Eve! How do you do?” though not all the girls who greet me are among Helena’s granddaughters. (Helena has three daughters—Rosamund, Deborah, and Marguerite—and six granddaughters in all, and though they are all delightful it’s Vega and Mira, daughters of Marguerite, whom I hold most dear.)
 
As usual, Emmet Fawkes is on his stool muttering to himself—“Satan’s foot soldiers are on the march!”—and on cue a squirrel scurries loudly across the roof tiles and an acorn pings off the gutter spout. I hear voices through the heavy velvet curtain, and when I step inside I spot several things on the table beneath the Leuchterweibchen that weren’t here last time: a phrenology model, a pair of golliwogs (it’s here you’ll find the playthings Lucretia Hartmann of Hartmann’s Classic Toys won’t touch), an armillary sphere with silver contours glinting in the sunlight.
 
There ’s another man in his eighties behind the counter, with its bronze crank-model cash register and apotropaic doodads arranged under the glass. He wears a bow tie and gray suspenders over a shortsleeved dress shirt, and you’d know from his coloring that his wispy white hair was red once. On this side of the counter there ’s a younger, heavier man drumming his fingers on the glass. I can tell by the tone of his voice and the tattered Macy’s bag that he ’s come to make a return. Make an attempt, that is.
 
“Hello, Evelyn,” says Harry Ibis in his usual placid tone, which seems to agitate the man even further. “Lovely day, isn’t it?” I murmur my agreement, Harry gives me a wry look over his customer’s shoulder, and the man glances at me nervously before continuing his plea.
 
“My wife is a wreck, Mr. Ibis. She ’s terrified! Every time she picks up the mirror she sees someone staring at her over her shoulder. Someone who isn’t there when she turns around.”
 
Mr. Ibis points to the sign tacked to the shelf above his head:
 
Absolutely no refunds or exchanges.
 
“But surely—”
Harry points again, to the line at the bottom of the notice:
 
No exceptions.
 
“You were aware of our policy before you made the purchase, Mr. Vandersmith. Buyer’s remorse is commonplace in a shop like this. It’s the nature of our inventory.”
 
“You aren’t going to give me my money back?”
 
Harry Ibis shakes his head. “I do apologize, Mr. Vandersmith, but if I gave a refund to every customer who changed his mind we ’d go out of business.”
 
“What the hell am I supposed to do with it then? I can’t bring it back into the house. My wife has already had to go on antianxiety medication!”
 
“I’d try eBay, if I were you,” Harry replies. “You might even get more than you paid for it.” Plenty of fools all over the planet willing to pay good money for allegedly haunted bric-a-brac.
 
The man pulls the mirror out of the bag and thrusts it into Harry’s hands. “You don’t believe me. You think I’m crazy. Or my wife is. But just you look in the mirror and tell me you don’t see him.”
 
“Him?”
 
“Just look. Just look and tell me you don’t see him.” Mr. Vandersmith pauses. “He ’s got big long sideburns and a moustache. And he ’s got no eyes, just . . . empty sockets.”
 
Harry is opening his mouth to tell his customer that he really cannot countenance such a story, that he is not so patient as he looks now he ’s in his ninth decade of life, but I decide to interrupt. “What a lovely mirror,” I say as I approach the counter. “Victorian, is it?”
 
Mr. Vandersmith nods, suspicious.
 
I rest my fingertips on the mirror handle. “May I see?”
 
“I don’t know if I should allow you, ma’am,” he replies entirely in earnest. “What you see may frighten you extremely.”
 
“Oh, I don’t scare easily. Mr. Ibis can tell you so himself. I’ve been shopping here since the day you opened, haven’t I, Harry?”
 
Harry cocks an eyebrow. “So you have, Evelyn.” I raise the looking glass and angle it so I can see over my shoulder.
 
I stare into it for several moments. “My niece had a mirror quite like this one once. It was part of a set. There were two brushes and two combs and a tray to match.” I lower the mirror and place it gently on the counter. “Such a shame the mirror cracked.” With a few words she’d made it good as new again, but a girl can never own too many mirrors.
 
Mr. Vandersmith stares at me. “You . . . you didn’t see anything in it, then?”
 
“Have you ever seen anything in it besides your own reflection,
Mr. Vandersmith?”
 
He hesitates, afraid to admit his wife might be going potty. But eventually he shakes his head.
 
“Tell you what: I’ll give you what you paid for it. It’s my niece ’s birthday tomorrow.” I fish my checkbook out of my handbag, open it on the counter, and click my pen. Mr. Vandersmith gapes at me. Harry is relieved, though he ’d never admit it.
 
A few moments later I follow the man out onto the sidewalk, where Fawkes is grousing about the myriad inadequacies of Medicare Part D to two passersby too young to care. I touch Mr. Vandersmith lightly on the elbow. “Your wife isn’t crazy,” I tell him in a low voice.
 
“I thought it might ease your mind if I told you so.”
 
He looks at me, flabbergasted, but I venture back through the velvet curtain before he can ask me why in God’s name I bought the mirror from him.
 
“I’m glad you’ve come today, Evelyn,” Harry says as I reenter the shop. “I’ve made a rather life-changing decision.”
 
I gasp. “Tell me you’re not selling!”
 
“Not exactly. I’m retiring, at last. Semi-retiring. My sister’s grandson is coming down to manage the shop for us from now on.”
 
“What! Emmet’s retiring too?”
 
“Emmet leaves for Europe at the beginning of August—he ’ll be gone at least three months, I’d say—and I was on the phone with my sister last week, and she was telling me how her grandson, Justin is his name, he has a philosophy degree but he ’s been working in a secondhand record shop. It seemed like the right time all around. Invite the boy down, give him a chance at a proper career. I have no one else to leave the shop to, anyhow.”
 
“Your nephew’s still quite young, then?”
 
“Only twenty-four, twenty-five. Haven’t seen him in yonks. I expect he ’s grown through the ceiling by now.”
 
Hmmm. The prospect of a little summertime fling isn’t exactly disagreeable,
now, is it?
 
So I ask Harry what he ’ll get up to once he commences this socalled semi-retirement—fly-fishing, tai chi, might even have a go at writing his memoirs—but it’s his nephew I really want to hear about. What’s he like? Smart kid, always remember him in a black nylon cape and plastic moustache practicing his magic tricks. Went to Brown and
fraternized with all the other green-haired dope-smoking hooligans squandering
what little brains they were born with. Philosophy. Pah!
 
Will Harry mind having him around the house? Not a bother, he’ll be staying in the upstairs apartment while Fawkes is gone.
 
Now for the most important question: and when will your nephew be arriving? Tomorrow afternoon, he says. So soon! I say. Isn’t that nice. I’ll send over a toffee cake to welcome him. One of Helena’s granddaughters will bring it over. My sister has so many, you see, that it’s a rare man who can tell them apart; nor would he notice if there’s one more Harbinger girl hanging about the place from time to time.
 
I can’t imagine living any other kind of life. Never an abscess or fever; never a worry about a bursting bladder on a long bus journey; never short on gentlemanly affections or womanly wiles; to be, truly, only as old as you feel. Getting older is just getting wiser, so they tell me anyway. How women can live with matchstick bones and menstrual cramps, I’ll never know—though I always wonder whenever I brush elbows with the ordinary shoppers in the Blackabbey mews.
 
When I come out of Fawkes and Ibis I see the window display’s being changed at the vintage wedding dress boutique across the way. The new gown is from the early forties, with a Peter Pan collar, and the mannequin’s torso is turned so we can see a line of dainty oystershell buttons from nape to small. The sleeves are bishop-style—full in the forearm and gathered at the wrist—and the cuffs are fastened with buttons to match. You aren’t a full-grown woman ’til you’ve worn sleeves like that.
 
Dymphna—a dear old girl; she owns the shop—arranges the frilly bits and bobs atop the lid of a rosewood hope chest, then adjusts the train so it looks like a pool of creamy silk on the velvet-covered platform. She looks up, gives me a little wave, and comes out the front door to greetme properly. “Lovely, isn’t it? Found it at an estate sale in Perth Amboy last week.” In silence we admire it together. “Funny thing, though—”
 
“It’s never been worn,” I murmur, still gazing up at the dress on the blank-faced mannequin.
 
“How could you tell?”
 
“No strained seams or discoloration under the arms, for a start. No sign of wear at the back hem either. An estate sale, you said?”
 
Dymphna nods. “Bought, but never worn.”
 
It’s a certain type of girl who’s out for the gowns Dymphna sells—the kind of girl who’d choose an engagement ring at Fawkes and Ibis—and this bride-to-be adores the self-conscious modesty of such a dress. Purity, propriety: they long for it, and not merely the impression of it, though no magic on earth will fashion a dress that can recover all it stands for. There’s no tailor in the back, no taking in or letting out when the merchandise is this old: the dress either fits you, or it doesn’t. Yet it is only a dress, is it not? To be worn once, then hung in the back of the closet and mostly forgotten about.
 
Worn twice, more like—for it wasn’t so long ago a bride would save her veil for a winding sheet.
 
Chapter Three
 
On Fidelity
 
. . . who’s to know
Where their feet dance while their heads sleep?
—Ted Hughes, “Witches”
 
Here is how it goes. Girl meets boy, mutual infatuation ensues, and when boy proposes marriage girl disregards the lessons of family history. For her father left her mother when she was still too small for any firsthand memories of him, and it was the same with her grandfather before that, and her great-grandfathers too. Hardly any of her friends have ever known their fathers either. Still, there are occasional stories of long and happy marriages with ordinary men, though she disregards the common wisdom that a dame in want of a faithful husband must go candy-striping at the local madhouse. Girl also disregards the dilemma of mismatched life expectancies, for she will live at least twice as long as an ordinary woman and will age half as quickly.
 
Visions of a golden-anniversary soirée amid copious offspring eclipse the warnings of her mother, grandmother, and aunts, and so girl marries boy. Boy still knows nothing of her underlying nature.  There may be a brief period of contentment, a domestic idyll of lie-ins and leftover wedding cake. The young bride has temporarily forgotten that she is no ordinary girl—no matter how fervently she might long to be—and for now, her only ambition is to keep a cozy home for a happy husband.
 
But things are too perfect, you see, and her man becomes distracted by vague suspicions. The house is always immaculate, his dinners delicious and served on time with a smile, yet his wife never seems to do any cooking or cleaning. She spends her afternoons in the backyard, tending the kitchen garden she’s cultivated from scratch, but he cannot content himself with the homegrown tomatoes and cabbage she puts on the table. When she goes out on an errand he ventures into the garden and feels a nameless panic at all the strange herbs thriving there, plants with hard black berries, intoxicating scents, and silvery leaves.
 
For Christmas she might knit him a sweater, a perfect woolen pullover in his favorite color, but whenever he puts it on he feels her love closing in like a vise. And yet, for all his claustrophobia, his wife seems uncannily independent; she does not need him to amuse or console her. He might pass a long evening at a bar in town, return home expecting a shrewish tirade, and feel no relief when he finds her poring over recipe books or knitting another sweater, utterly content in her own company (and indeed, hardly aware of his absence).
 
The real trouble starts when she tells him she is pregnant. He is overjoyed, of course, celebrates with brandy and cigars and busies himself converting the spare room into a nursery; but when his wife offers names like Hester and Morgan and diplomatically suggests the child bear her surname as well as his, he pretty much blows his lid, and the marriage begins its inexorable decline. It rankles him, her certainty that their child will be a girl. (There is a boy child born among us every now and again, but it’s not a common occurrence.)
 
In the end it will be something seemingly innocuous that sets him off: he might overhear another bizarre bedtime story, this one populated by sewer goblins, gnomes who live on a golf-course periphery, good-natured witches who use magic to scour the stove and take out the garbage. Those stories about Baba Yaga and her yardful of bones were vile enough, but this! The overwrought husband stomps off in search of his suitcase.
 
So it is that every few months we must ease one of our own out of a disastrous marriage. She ’ll arrive at Helena’s house looking fairly distraught. My sister will usher her in, settle her into the coziest chair in the parlor, and venture into the kitchen to brew a cup of cinnamon tea. Helena returns with steaming mug to find our poor friend crumpled in her chair, fists full of sodden Kleenex. Helena calls the guard and we all drop whatever we ’re doing. Morven and I poof home for the night. We descend upon the house and listen to her stories of preposterous accusations and icy silences, how he says that when he goes he ought to take their daughter with him. (He will leave alone, though, and when he ’s gone his daughter will finally take her mother’s name.)
 
We tell her we ’ll bind and gag him, drag him from the house, put him on a boat, and motor out for miles before dumping him overboard. But he won’t drown right away, we tell her, because we want him alive while the fanged mermaids are feasting on his entrails.
 
She’ll cringe at this, of course, and say she still loves him and wants no harm to come to him. Gently we remind her that she can now teach her daughter properly, no longer hindered by some sad little man forever passing judgment from the reclining armchair in front of the television. It doesn’t matter how enlightened he might have seemed during their courtship; this devolution was inevitable.
 
You can believe everything I just said apart from the bit about the fanged mermaids. Not that fanged mermaids don’t exist, or that we don’t threaten to feed the traitorous wretch to them. We ’d never actually follow through on it, is what I mean. From time to time you do hear tales of husbands gone missing, but there ’s always a rational explanation—stupid man went night-fishing in January or some such. And there are, of course, those stories of husbands falling in alarmingly quick succession, like dominoes, and a frequently widowed woman growing in wealth and vitality with each fresh loss. Dame Alice, the Irish sorceress, was the most infamous practitioner of such dark magic, but her power went unchecked only because her coven had no teeth.
 
In our coven we take a lifelong oath in girlhood—By magic I shall do no harm, except in defense of myself or another—but I’ve never heard any tales of violence in these otherwise-disastrous marriages. There may be an abundance of spite at the close of this generic tale of boy meets dame, but in no case does her husband ever raise a hand to her.
She may behave foolishly when in love, but she ’d never be fool enough to choose a wife beater; and besides, underneath that bravado of anger and suspicion, isn’t he more than a little afraid of her?
 
It must have happened much the same way with our parents. Our mother, Lily, had met our father at the county library, where he was a reference clerk. He had no family here, no connections whatsoever, and thus it seemed natural that he should have his family at Harbinger House just as every ordinary husband had before him. I came tumbling into the world the very day the Civil War broke out, and he left in blue uniform within days of my birth. Helena has only the haziest memories of him, and Morven none at all. I have no idea how much he knew of my mother’s nature; she had ceased to speak of him by the time I was old enough to wonder.
 
After Antietam there were no more letters, and for months my mother lived in fear of the doorbell. The strange thing was the utter absence of portents. No puddle of spilled milk indicated his misfortune, nor robin red-breast hopping on the windowsill to inflame her dwindling hope. She could have looked into a snow globe, but she was afraid to, as any loving wife would be.
 
We had only one photograph of him, a family portrait taken the day of his departure—my mother holding me in swaddling, Morven in his lap, and Helena standing with her tiny hand on his knee—and I spent so many hours staring at that daguerreotype on the drawing room mantelpiece that I would have known my father’s face anywhere.
He had fine and noble features that belied his humble background and the same pale cat’s eyes I saw whenever I stood before the looking glass.
 
By the end of the war we still had no news of him, and Mother began making weekly visits to the local veterans’ affairs office to lodge her inquiries. His name did not appear on any casualty list, but they presumed the worst, and she received a widow’s pension.
 
Fast-forward a decade, to the very day I would make my oath, a bright and frosty morning. I stood at the parlor window idly watching the milkman flirt with Auntie Emmeline on the front walk, when something on the road caught my eye. A carriage was stopped on the far side of the street, and I could clearly see a man inside looking up at our house. He gazed at me with great interest, and I realized with a creeping sense of horror that the man in the carriage was none other than my dead father. I wanted to call out for my mother, for anybody, but I was frozen where I stood.
 
After what seemed like an eternity, I made the slightest movement away from the window. The stranger immediately put a gloved hand on the carriage door and spoke a few words to the driver, and in a moment they were gone.
 
That morning at the parlor window wasn’t the end of it. Every few years he would reappear, always at a watchful distance, and as far as I knew it was only I who ever saw him. I couldn’t tell Mother, of course, and something prevented me from speaking of it to either sister. If Morven or Helena had seen him, surely I would have known.
 
Once I saw him on Fifth Avenue, at the library’s grand opening, but he disappeared in the crowd before I could follow him. Later on I saw him in places he couldn’t possibly have been, years upon years after his life should have ended had he lived its full length; and so I came to understand that the sight of my father’s face was, for me, the most sinister portent of all. Sadists, child molesters, violent drunks: I can spot them all from half a mile off.
 
But that wasn’t the most disturbing consequence of the whole business. The notion that my father could have found in the war an opportunity to slough his old life—wife, daughters, and all—was a revelation to me. If it was true, it was utterly despicable, and yet that word did not occur to me until many years afterward. I was overcome with a new feeling, a horrified fascination: this was the nature of men. I had no doubt the man in that carriage was my father; I knew his face and saw the recognition in it. He knew me, too.
 
I came of age that day in more ways than one.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted September 28, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    So romantic!!

    Absolutely fell in love with this book! It was very cleverly done, and you just gotta love a whip-smart heroine! Anyway....go read it now! Would make a TERRIFIC movie!!!!

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  • Posted September 24, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    A love across time

    Miss Evelyn Harbinger is a witch. But not the warty-nose and pointy-hat kind. Evelyn is plain, with the same insecurities as everyone else. Oh, and she's over 140 years old, can travel through toilets, and can do magic. Set during both world wars, Eve is hired by various agencies to work as a spy. During this time, she meets her soul mate Jonas, who's life eventually ends due to wartime causes. However, years later, Eve meets Justin, a split-image of her former love. Could it be possible that Jonas has somehow returned to her?

    I read Camille DeAngelis' Mary Modern back when it was released in 2007 and absolutely loved it. The premise was neat and the writing was new and exciting. This sophomore book doesn't quite pack the same punch, but I still enjoyed it a lot. The coven of witches reminded me of a group of sweet, kooky old ladies. DeAngelis teases the reader with sex but never shows any of it, and the scenes are yummy nonetheless. My heart ached for Eve's longing to have her former lover again. The best part was the completely swoon-worthy ending.Drool!

    DeAngelis has a very witty and smart voice, the likes of which I have not seen in quite some time. I loved reading from Eve's POV. It felt like I laughed out loud in almost every chapter. And though the plot spanned across centuries, DeAngelis obviously thought out the smaller details, because the story is tight and wraps up nicely. I am looking forward to her next book!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2011

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