Reading Romance: Practical Magic

Romance (and genre fiction in general) tends to mirror our cultural psyche. After Hurricane Katrina, for example, there was a burst of romances featuring women who could control the weather. So what do we make of the recent spate of heroines who have magical powers but can't seem to use them for more than chatting with irritable, dead relatives? In this month alone, five novels were published with gifted but clueless characters, employing their magical powers with all the finesse of an Olympic swimmer debuting on the hockey rink.

Connie Brockway's So Enchanting opens up with Lord Greyson Sheffield's exposure of yet another fraudulent spiritualist claiming to have contact with the afterlife: he rips off a table cloth to uncover Mr. Brown playing a "spirit" violin with his naked toes while his wife supposedly contacts the afterworld. Years later, Greyson is horrified to discover that Brown's widow, Francesca, is snugly living in Scotland as guardian to an orphaned girl accused of being a witch. Francesca and Greyson are a brilliantly mismatched, sarcastic pair, who spar with a mixture of passion and irony. The problem is that Greyson's family was bankrupted by a spiritual con artist, and he categorically loathes (and disbelieves in) the supernatural, whereas Francesca really does possess magic, but only the fairly useless skill of summoning animals such as crows and bats. What's worse, she can't control either the animals or her effect on them; when she and Greyson make love, the neighborhood dogs howl right along with them. Francesca bitterly hates her impractical gift. She wants nothing more than to be normal. By the end of the novel she's attracting bunnies rather than bats. At least rabbits aren't pests; her personal happiness and Greyson's acceptance of her abilities has turned the impractical (howling dogs) to the charming (silent bunnies).

Annette Blair's Never Been Witched features a similar pair: Destiny Cartwright is a witch who finds herself lusting after a paranormal debunker, Morgan Jarvis. Destiny's magic is in fine working order (she summons up ghosts with little more than a rhyme, and her paintings foretell the future), but Morgan is another kettle of fish. He has more than a few secrets to hide, only one of which involves his own supernatural gifts. As a child Morgan repressed his magic because of its role in a family death. Like Francesca, he is desperate to be normal, so much so that his favorite mantra at the beginning of the book is dead witch, dead witch. Yet normality is not Morgan's destiny. He ends up mated to a witch, with a kitchen full of ghosts and an erratic ability to see the future. Accepting his powers leads to the ability to establish order, to supernaturally houseclean, as it were. His personal family ghost departs with angelic escort to the great hereafter, and Morgan turns from fearing Destiny to asking her practical questions about how a rebuilt tower is going to look. If an architect knows in advance what a building is going to look like, his job is much, much easier.

Sharon Ashwood's Ravenous: The Dark Forgotten sounds spooky, but in fact it is a hilarious story about a witch whose powers are so unreliable that they're good for nothing more than minor league ghost-busting. Like Morgan, Holly blocked her own magical abilities due to a childhood death in the family. Her clients pay her piddling amounts for kicking "haunted butt." Her job is low-rent all the way -- until she encounters a haunted manor with serious attitude and six people trapped inside. Though she almost dies, she manages to finish the job. Unfortunately, there's no rest for the weary, and freaky creatures (think six-foot mice) start leaking out of a prison located in another dimension. Luckily for Holly, one of her best friends is Alessandro Caravelli, a vampire with centuries of skill at dispatching paranormal mice (not to mention bedding women). She learns to unleash her power, and by the end of the novel, Holly has saved the world, killed a bunch of demons, stormed the supernatural prison, and cured Alessandro of his taste for blood. She celebrates her many victories by employing a handy cleaning spell. The best magic, this book implies, empowers you to kill mice and clean house. Practical magic is the truly desirable coin of the realm.

Tammy Jo Trask, in Kimberly Frost's Would-Be Witch, is even more incompetent than Holly. Most of the women in her family have serious powers, but hers are dormant and she can't seem to access them. That leaves her with little more than the ability to host get-togethers with an irritable long-dead relative, who responds to polite "How are you's" with "I'm dead. How would you be?" Tammy Jo spends her time working in a bakery, dodging zombies, etc., because she just doesn't have enough magic to cope. Finally she begs for tutoring from the mysterious Bryn Lyons, a man who not only knows his way around a wand but tastes of peppermint schnapps and dark chocolate. But then Tammy Jo's former husband, a sexy cop named Zack ("broad chest of hard muscle covered by a tight, white T-shirt") is also vying for her attention. Tammy Jo does learn how to fight off werewolves, etc., but what she really longs for (and finally gains) is the ability to zap a rude woman with the hiccups.

Dogs and Goddesses has a more complicated plot, in tune with the complexities of a book written by three bestselling authors, Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich. The novel's trio of heroines, Abby, Daisy and Shar, are peacefully living in a midwestern college town when they abruptly discover that they are actually goddesses, reincarnated priestesses of the Mesopotamian goddess Kammani, who's been accidentally resurrected on campus. Initially, goddess status doesn't seem to confer very useful skills. Abby Richmond is a baker, running the Temple Street Coffeehouse; her magical skill makes her cookies quite desirable, especially to an uptight professor named Christopher Mackenzie. Think Chocolat. While I'd never deny the power of a lyrical mixture of sugar and butter, I tend to think that goddesses as being more along the lines of Persephone, bringing Spring to the world, or Pandora, carrying around the world's ills in her personal jewelry box. Daisy Harris writes web code for a living, and her special skill seems to be the ability to raise a breeze by clicking her favorite pen. Professor Shar Summer is 48, and her unusual gift is an orgasmic response to colors (a true liability if she strolls past a red hot car). While all three women fall in love, the heart of the story has to do with learning to control their powers. The magic pen initially operates like a gimmicky pocket fan, but once Daisy learns to control it, she can bring chaos itself under control. Shar's orgasmic responses seem uncomfortably irrational, but by the end of the novel she can channel her experiences enough to explode streetlights and car windows -- if not precisely practical, at least less chaotic. Plus she saves the world, dispatches Kimmani, and tames a gorgeous god's propensity to stray.

Each of these books evinces a deep fear and dislike of chaos. Due to her uncontrolled magic and its effect on animals, Francesca creates tumult wherever she goes. Morgan's fear of magic has more than a little to do with the emotional turmoil accompanying a psychic gift. Does one really need to know that the kitchen is populated by dissatisfied ghosts? Daisy, Shar, and Abby learn to harness everything from wind to sexual desire. The same goes for Tammy Jo and Holly. True, they do learn demon-kicking magic -- but what they seem most happy about is the ability to clean a room with a snap of fingers, and to dole out hiccup curses. Small, practical magic.

In a time when the financial world is reeling and our domestic comforts seem to be spinning out the window with our endangered jobs, these books speak directly to the desire for control. The heroines achieve it on a big scale (mostly by saving the world), but the novels also tackle smaller desires, for orgasms, cookies, easy housecleaning. They play to those readers who envied Mrs. Weasley's ability to peel potatoes with a wave of her wand far more than Harry's prowess at fighting the Dark Lord. Significantly, the skills celebrated here are ones that every American woman would like to have and can have, even without a magical gift.

If you'd like to discuss practical magic (or its opposite), please stop in to chat with Eloisa in the Romantic Reads Book Club, where she'll be joined by Connie Brockway, Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich. You can check out Eloisa's past columns in the Archives. And if you'd like a peek at Eloisa's own romances, please visit her website at http://www.eloisajames.com.

About the Columnist
Eloisa James is a New York Times–bestselling author of historical romances, as well as a memoirist (Paris in Love) and professor of English literature teaching Shakespeare at Fordham University. Her latest novel is Three Weeks with Lady X.

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