The story starts in 1664 when a baby girl is found abandoned in a snowy field close to the cottage of Hannah Owens, a herbalist and healer who has taught herself magic. When Hannah unwraps the baby's blanket she recognises an unusual birthmark shaped like a star - the mark of a bloodline witch. Is this why baby Maria has been abandoned? The story spans a 30 year period, following Maria as she finally meets her disreputable parents, is forced to flee England, becomes an indentured servant in Curacao, makes a living for herself in the fledgling city of New York, before ending up in Salem - and we all know what happened there...
If you do think you know what's going to happen, you're in for a surprise. Alice Hoffman ingeniously re-tells Maria's story as it appears in her earlier book but with some very clever twists. As Maria moves from place to place she makes a note in her grimoire of the plants that are grown locally and the uses they can be put to (both recipes and spells) and these notes are cleverly woven into the story. The amount of historical detail about England in the 17th century, life in the Caribbean and early New York is amazing. I wasn't sure I'd learn anything new about Salem but the author concentrates on the people who lived there and what motivated them to begin accusing their neighbours of witchcraft.
The writing is beautiful, with a dreamy fairy tale quality that pulled me right into the world the author has created. I loved the characters despite their flaws - it turns out that even a witch who can read every 'sign' is capable of walking straight into disaster! I especially loved Samuel and Cadin - both of whom had a lot to put up with! The story is also about women supporting women, mother-daughter relationships, women surviving in a man's world and life's harsh lessons.
Magic Lessons is the perfect story to read as the nights begin drawing in, for anyone who wants to lose themselves in a really good book, who loves historical novels or magic realism, or anything 'witchy'. Fans of Practical Magic will not be disappointed. One of my favourite reads this year.
Thank you to Alice Hoffman and Scribner/Simon & Schuster UK for my copy of this book, which I requested from NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.