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'The Probable Future' by Alice Hoffman

Family of clairvoyants see through each other in magical Hoffman novel

Sunday, July 27, 2003

By Betsy Kline, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Bewitching storytelling has become Alice Hoffman's stock in trade, working literary spells in a slew of novels, including "Practical Magic," "Here on Earth," "Second Nature," "Turtle Moon," "Seventh Heaven" and others.

"The Probable Future"

By Alice Hoffman

Doubleday ($24.95)


So it comes as no surprise that her newest fiction revolves around 13 generations of witchy women in a picturesque Massachusetts village where secrets and shame have uneasily co-existed for centuries.

Hardly a Halloween tale, the novel starts strong, weaving an enchanting tale of estrangement and reconciliation that unravels toward the climax with one of Hoffman's too-pat Hollywood endings. Blame the surfeit of subplots and secondary characters, each demanding a tidy resolution.

The reader eventually comes to feel as clairvoyant as one of the main characters, anticipating plot twists a hundred pages away.

But despite all that, Hoffman has pulled off another touching and absorbing novel that her fans will not want to miss.

She introduces the women of the Sparrow family, who for centuries have produced only female offspring, each endowed with a "gift" of dubious value: the ability to turn anything into a meal; weather prediction; the ability to find anything lost, "whether it was a misplaced ring, a wandering fiancee or an overdue library book"; perfect night vision; the ability to walk through fire unharmed; the total absence of a sense of physical pain.

The current generation has been torn apart and tormented because of its "gifts." The elderly Elinor lives on, lonely and bitter, in the crumbling Cake House. Her only daughter, Jenny, has fled because Elinor can spot liars without fail, and Jenny's boyfriend, Will Avery, is the worst of liars.

Jenny decamps to Cambridge with the shiftless Will because her ability to see other people's dreams tells her that Will is her destiny.

Jenny and Will are separated when their daughter, Stella, turns 13 and realizes her gift as a Sparrow woman: She can look at a person and know when and how he will die.

It is Stella's clairvoyance that sets off a chain of events that result in her father in jail on homicide charges when he tries to warn the police of a gruesome murder Stella foresees.

When Jenny and Will realize that the real murderer might target Stella as a potential witness, mother and daughter flee to Cake House and the protection of Elinor, who longs to be a family again as she faces down cancer.

Hoffman's literary gifts shine their brightest in the scenes of familial discovery and forgiveness, as the three generations of Sparrow women grapple with their past mistakes and uncertain futures.

Stella foresees that her grandmother will die soon, and attempts to heal the hurts that weigh heavily on all their hearts.

Looming over all is the murky Sparrow history, specifically the story of Rebecca Sparrow, the 18th-century woman of mysterious origin whose horrible end still holds the tiny village of Unity and its inhabitants in its thrall.

So mesmerizing does Hoffman make the Sparrow legend that one almost forgets there is another murderer hiding in the shadows.

Let "The Probable Future" work its magic on you.

Betsy Kline, a Post-Gazette staff writer and copy editor, died June 16.

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