The magic that permeates Alice Hoffman’s novels flows from a source more redemptive than the dark headwaters from which spring nastier fairy tales. And yet Hoffman’s modern-day sorcery is not benign. In her new novel, a downbeat but enchanting generational drama, a ghost haunts the guilty; a pearl necklace absorbs and reflects the shades of its owner’s moods, and bold souls who have the nerve to rise above their sorrow often find themselves literally tumbling to the ground.
Supernatural elements often arise in Hoffman’s work, but her matter-of-fact tone casts an easy spell of acceptance, transforming the fantastic into the unremarkable outcome of a topsy-turvy world. And so it’s not difficult to believe that young Arlyn Singer may accept her father’s tales about men who can sprout wings and bear themselves from harm.
Arlyn’s father is not so blessed. He dies, leaving a 17-year-old sure that her future will unfold like a flower at the hands of the first man who stumbles along. (While apparently familiar with fantasy, Arlyn is not so well-versed in feminism.) She is “young enough not to see a glass as half empty or half full, but as a beautiful object into which anything might be poured.”
But Hoffman, Yankee magical realist that she is, also possesses a wide streak of pragmatism: Destiny, not benevolent, sends Yale student John Moody into Arlyn’s arms, where he lingers for several days, then flees.
Through persistence, denial and what we would uncomfortably define as stalking, Arlyn manages to ensnare John, but Hoffman quickly forestalls notions of great romance. Assigning arbitrary motives to fate, she seems to say, has its consequences. The unhappy union leads to betrayals, a tragedy and a legacy of sorrow for the next generation: wild, wayward Sam and book-loving Blanca. They will spend troubled childhoods in the famous Glass Slipper, an architectural marvel that Hoffman uses to accentuate a hard truth. With glass panels and reflective swimming pools, the spectacular house shelters but can’t quite comfort the brooding or inconsolable.
Hoffman uses imagery of the elements, particularly water, to create a somber, otherworldly atmosphere, although she goes overboard in her attempt to convey wonder and meaning with trite dream sequences. But Skylight Confessions—which also introduces the sensitive misfit Meredith, who believes a ghost has led her to Sam and Blanca—refuses to give in to despair. There is a path toward healing.
Pay attention: “A road map isn’t easy to follow. Any document made of blood and bones is tricky. Wrong turns are easily made, and there are often piles of stones in the road. A person has to disregard time and sorrow and all the damage done. If you follow, if you dare, the thread always leads to whomever or whatever you’ve forgotten.”