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Sister, Sister: Reading Alice Hoffman Then and Now

Sister, Sister: Reading Alice Hoffman Then and Now

At a party full of fiction writers this past weekend, a girl I met told me that she was fascinated by the friendship between the writers Elizabeth Hardwick and Mary McCarthy, author of the famous 1963 novel of post-college female friendship "The Group."

I told her about an email I had just received, from another woman, an old friend of mine, who asked if I could think of any notable famous friendships. Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen, I shot back. Donald Judd and Dan Flavin, two artists whose bond was so deep (though they eventually fell out) that Judd named his son Flavin for his friend.

Maybe, in retrospect, she was looking for women; thinking critically about female relationships seems to be in the air. "Of course," the girl I'd just met replied. "We're living in a post-Ferrante world."

I knew exactly what she meant: You can't have eyes and ears and an Instagram account without being aware of the gushing consensus that Italian writer Elena Ferrante's novels have reinvigorated our reading of intense, complex, resilient female friendships. ("I was interested in recounting how a long friendship between two women could endure and survive in spite of good and bad feelings, dependence and rebellion, mutual support and betrayal," the elusive Ferrante told Vogue's Megan O'Grady about her protagonists Elena and Lila in a rare interview last August.)

I can only quote O'Grady when it comes to Ferrante, because shamefully, "My Brilliant Friend," the first novel in her Neapolitan tetralogy, has sat on my bedside table for the past many months, perpetually skipped over in favor of other, more urgent reading. I’m sure I’ll eventually end up a convert, but cracking the book has begun to feel a bit like eating my vegetables.

My latest excuse has been Alice Hoffman's "The Marriage of Opposites," out now, and also featuring a lifelong sister-like friendship. Hoffman is the prolific Boston-based magical realist, whose stories fittingly play to the notion that love — both romantic and platonic — represents a mystical meeting of perfectly paired souls.

It's been a long time since the publication of an Alice Hoffman novel shook my world. But there was a time when I devoured everything of hers I could find, books dripping with pathos and otherworldly possibility, perfect for humid, buggy summer nights when it was too hot to sleep. I loved them: "Illumination Night," a charged tale of several socially isolated Martha's Vineyard–dwellers that made me long for an island I hadn't been to since I was a baby; "Second Nature," an uncanny story about a single mother who rescues a man raised by wolves from an insane asylum, then falls in love with him.

Hoffman built worlds in which magical creatures lived quiet lives among us, signs and superstitions carried real meaning, human desires were powerful enough to effect the weather. Loneliness, and so many of her characters were lonely, made a person deep; but crushes — a childish word for attractions that Hoffman treated as epic, undeniable, life-altering physical states — were generally requited. Even the freaks were beautiful to someone, a message that landed hard with freakishly tall, hormonal, unlovable adolescent me. I was on the verge of being a teenager, finding it tough to relinquish a childhood love of dragons and Camelot, of Earthsea and Narnia; Alice Hoffman wrote for adults, she wrote about love and sex, but she also wrote about magic.

The novel of hers that I loved best, "Practical Magic," was about all of those things, but mostly it was about sisters. I first encountered "Practical Magic" somewhere between its publication in 1995 (I was 12) and the release of the Sandra BullockNicole Kidman–starring movie adaptation in 1998, which I greeted with eager anticipation, then when it turned out to be hokey and unworthy, hated vociferously (the soundtrack, though, was excellent).

If the post-Ferrante world is concerned with the sisterhood of female friendship, "Practical Magic" is concerned with finding friendship with your sister. Sally and Gillian Owens are orphans, raised by two ancient, witchy aunts in a ramshackle Massachusetts house, in a gossipy town where it’s well-known that the Owens women are different. Their shared outcast childhood yields two very dissimilar adults, "Night and Day," the aunts joke: Gillian is wild, beautiful, irresponsible, and footloose, quick to fall in love and just as quick to run away; Sally is dutiful, quiet, and rooted, the widowed mother of two baby girls by the time she’s in her mid-twenties. By their mid-30s, the sisters are essentially estranged, until Gillian resurfaces unexpectedly, convinced she’s killed the bad man she most recently loved by administering the wrong dose of nightshade, an herb she hoped would knock him out before he could drink himself violent after dinner.

What do you do when your long lost little sister shows up on your suburban front step, anxiously chain smoking Lucky Strikes, with bruises up her arms, desert sand in her cowboy boots, and a dead man in the Oldsmobile that’s blocking your driveway? In the land of Alice Hoffman, you help her bury him in your backyard, underneath a wilting lilac bush that will suddenly spring back to life, bearing masses of heady flowers that remind everyone who passes by of desires they thought they'd long since stifled.

There are men in this book, too, other than the mean dead one under the lilacs: Gillian falls hard for an impossibly dreamy biology teacher named Ben Fry; Sally for Gary Hallet, the lovelorn investigator who comes to town from Tucson looking for Gillian’s drug-dealing ex. But it's not romantic love that kept me coming back, summer after summer, to my hardcover with the Dante Gabriel Rossetti oil of a solitary woman holding a pomegranate on the jacket. It’s the story of those diametrically opposed sisters, of their uneasy reunion in adult life. I, too, have a sister. She's both like me and completely not, and at the moment I first read "Practical Magic," she was racing as stubbornly toward adulthood as I was intent on hanging back. I liked the idea that destinies forged in the same fire were linked forever, the notion that even after decades apart, a sister is, for better or worse, like a time machine back to childhood. What’s more magical than that?

"My two biggest regrets in my life are that I did not have a daughter, and I did not have a sister," Hoffman, who is married with two sons, tells me by phone. "For me to write about sisters and daughters is kind of a way to experience what it's like to live it. Of course, when I'm done writing, I don't have one."

"The Marriage of Opposites" is an enveloping, beautifully wrought work of historical fiction that weaves together many strands: there's a fictionalized portrait of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro as a young man in mid-19th-century Paris, revolutionizing the world of art even as he remains financially dependent on his hidebound, conservative mother; the story of his early life as the black sheep son of Jewish merchants on the Dutch island of St. Thomas; the passionate romance of his parents, Frédéric and Rachel, whose forbidden love — he was her late husband's nephew — is deemed incest by Jewish law; Rachel's unhappy arranged first marriage to a much older man; her childhood with a disapproving vindictive mother and a progressive but secretive father.

Twenty five novels in (and those are just the ones for adults), in her early 60s, Hoffman is writer enough to pull this ambitious, multi-generational novel off. But peel back the layers and Marriage has all the hallmarks of her earlier work. St. Thomas is a world of magical potions and superstitions, in which a sachet of lavender has the power to lead a traveler back home and three blackbirds outside a bedroom window is a reliable predictor that the room's inhabitant will soon die. As a girl, Rachel loves fairy tales, particularly a legend that haunts the book, a metaphor for Rachel's own life, the story of a girl born a turtle to a human mother, raised by a turtle mother, and forever caught between ocean and land. Rachel grows up with Adelle, her family's maid, like a mother to her, and side by side with Adelle's daughter, Jestine. As Rachel's life is shaped by the misogynistic laws of her tight-knit Jewish community, an experience that, over time, shapes her youthful rebelliousness into a chilly rigidity reminiscent of her own mother, Jestine's lot is determined by the tragic limitations placed on a woman with dark skin in 19th-century St. Thomas. But throughout the many eras of this story, the two stay close, celebrating their birthdays as the twins they’re not, helping to birth and raise each other's children, and finally taking their fates into their own hands, hand in hand (you'll have to read the book to see what I mean).

"If we had been sisters," says Rachel, "she would have been the pretty one. I would have been the one who was too smart for her own good, and too bossy." The marriage in the book's title refers to the union of Rachel and Frédéric, the marriage that created Camille, the artist who would become known as the father of Impressionism; look at it from another angle, and those opposites could be Rachel and Jestine.

I ask Hoffman if there was a historical basis for including Jestine in the story — she read extensively about Pissarro and his family in order to write this book — but unsurprisingly, the friendship was entirely invented. "Jestine was a complete figment of my imagination," Hoffman tells me. "But it seemed to me that Rachel would be a woman who should have a best friend. The rest of the world might perceive her as aloof and cold, but there would be somebody she could turn to."

I'm reminded of a passage in "Practical Magic," which I just picked up again, for the thousandth time. "Never presume August is a safe or reliable time of year. It is the season of reversals," Hoffman wrote. "Avoid men who call you Baby, and women who have no friends, and dogs that scratch at their bellies and refuse to lie down at your feet." It's August now, two decades since she published that book, but her advice resonates more than ever.

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Photo Credit: Robert Decelis Ltd via Getty Images