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.
There's an old saying about life, "You have to play with the hand you're dealt." For the Samuelsons and Harringtons of small-town Franconia, New Hampshire, the deck always seems to be stacked against them. After Gretel Samuelson's father moves out and marries a younger woman, her mother Frances goes into a depression and then discovers she has cancer. Gretel, a smart, shrewd teen, becomes passionately involved with hood Sonny Garnet, the town amphetamine dealer, while her younger brother, Jason, turns from Harvard plans to drugs. Jill Harrington's mother also suffers from severe depression, and pregnant Jill quits school before her junior year, marrying Eddie LoPacca, a decent guy, though not the world's brightest. The two girls have been close "local girls" all their lives, just as Frances Samuelson and Margot Molinaro, her recently divorced cousin, have been. In fact, it is Margot who helps Frances rebuild her life by starting a catering business with her, called The Two Widows. Surprisingly, while the events in this novel are the material of classic family tragedies, the tone is rather upbeat, downright funny at times, and attitude is everything. The womenMargot and Frances, Gretel and Jillencourage each other through the hard times of life. This sisterly bond enables them to survive "the hand they've been dealt." On the last page, when Gretel and Jill discover a firefly, Jill says, "Should I kill it?" As it flies away, Gretel says, "It decided to live." "Good for it," says Jill. "Good for us." They, too, have made that conscious decision. In our society of dysfunctional families and personal struggles, this is an important message for YAs to hear. An easy read that shouldcapture the interest of many teen readers. Reviewer: Susan G. Allison; Libn., Lewiston H.S., Lewiston, ME, September 2000 (Vol. 34 No. 5)
Local Girls might not be Hoffman's (Practical Magic) finest book, but it's one that lends itself brilliantly to the audio format. Billed as "stories," these are interconnected tales about the same vividly dysfunctional family. The abridgment, therefore, does not interrupt the flow, and key elements are repeated often enough that listeners can pick up any story and get the gist of the whole (though there are a few unfortunate gaps, such as how Gretel's brother actually died). The two voices, Laural Merlington and Aasne Vigesaa (one for the first person voice of Gretel, a young woman whose life is falling apart; the other for women narrating Gretel's various situations), work wonderfully, though by the second tape the supposed "working-class Long Island" accent was beginning to grate on this reviewer's ears (leaving one to think that one actress might be overplaying her role). On the plus side, that same overacting will be seen as humorous by many listeners. Recommended for most audio collections.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with "Soho Weekly News," New York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Told in alternating voices, the stories form a scapbook of pivotal moments in the lives of Gretel and...her best friend, Jill...[at] 12, that unpredictable and dangerous age when sampling shades of lipstick and playing with dolls seem equally interesting.
The New York Times Book Review
Ten disastrous years in the life of a family on Long Island, only partly redeemed by the shimmering prose we've come to expect from Hoffman (Here on Earth). There's really no reason why what's billed as a collection of interconnected stories shouldn't be a novel, except that the author apparently couldn't spare the time to make the narration coherently first- or third-person. (More than half the book's contents first appeared in literary periodicals or women's magazines; it appears to have been untouched since then.) Gretel Samuelson begins the tale when she and her best friend Jill are in their early teens, and by the time an omniscient narrator appears with Gretel's grandmother in the sixth installment (How to Talk to the Dead), a lot has gone wrong. Gretel's father has left and remarried; her mother has been diagnosed with cancer; her brother, Jason, a sweet, brilliant boy, seems likely to throw away his impending freshman year at Harvard in favor of drugs and drifting; even their dog has run away. Poor Grandma Frieda doesn't survive ten pages past her entrance, and the death toll mounts in subsequent chapters uneasily alternating between the nearly indistinguishable voices of Gretel and the third-party storyteller. Jason ODs; their mother finally loses her battle with cancer; Jill kills her chances of a future outside Franconia by getting pregnant, marrying the not-very-bright father, and dropping out of high school. Yes, Gretel's divorced cousin Margot ultimately gets a decent man, Gretel eventually goes to college and starts a career in publishing, and some readers may draw consolation from a few admittedly beautiful descriptive passages about the natural world. ButHoffman's trademark there's-magic-beneath-the-surface-of-our-daily-lives stance feels pretty tired here, as do the characters. The central theme"Fate could twist you around and around, if you weren't careful"is reiterated so often it ceases to have any impact. Hoffman remains a major talent, but she's marking time here.
Praise for Local Girls
Named by School Library Journal as one of the
Top Five Adult Fiction Books for Young Adults
“Moving and illuminative...a fine piece of literary magic.”—USA Today
“Moving and deadpan funny...Epiphanies about passion, pain, and resiliency induce smiles and shivers in equal measure.”—Entertainment Weekly
“Wonderfully sly and unforgettable scenes...Hoffman gets it just right.”—The Boston Globe
“Disarming wit...she balances the down-to-earth and the ethereal, and indicates that the human spirit can survive despite the cruel workings of fate.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“Hoffman evokes the intimacy of close attachments—mother, brother, aunt, friend, neighbor, classmate—with tender humor and deceptively simple language.”—Richmond Times-Dispatch