Alice Hoffman writes for a wide audience of adults, teenagers, and children. Her works grow from her belief that the greatest reality is in fiction, that all lives contain elements of fantasy. She finds the stuff of fairy tales in everyday life. Monsters and compassionate people live side by side. The woods hold mysteries, if only of the mind. Some dwellings might as well be palaces, in their distancing of ordinary folks. Animals have distinct personalities and can communicate with humans. Children are abused by wicked adults and sometimes rescued by forces of good. Partners and loved ones are abandoned, and people die. Dreams and other images can be haunting, and sounds and smells can evoke memories that seem otherworldly.
Hoffman bases some of her works on fairy tales because she appreciates their emotional truths; the lessons they teach about human nature, love, and hatred. Though a witch may not wait before an open fire for Hansel and Gretel, there are purveyors of evil in the world and sometimes a long-toothed slathering wolf will drape himself in the coat of a kindly sheep.
Hoffman often lulls readers by beginning her stories simply, with characters seeming to live perfect lives; but the asp is in the garden, ready to change things. Children, the most vulnerable of creatures, die or are kidnapped; old people wither into death; people divorce, drink, philander, take drugs, commit suicide, abuse the less powerful, murder, engage in incest, and succumb to mental illness. Women give in to their attractions to bad men. They suffer. Some evolve, some never recover. Many need to sink to the depths of darkness before they can emerge into the light.
Hoffman’s method of introducing otherworldly themes in her narrative is so subtle, so natural, that even readers who prefer straight-on fiction often overlook what they would otherwise consider lapses. Her stories are true psychologically. Who, on occasion, has not sensed the identity of the caller on a ringing phone or had a dream become a life event?
Hoffman uses recurring themes that follow familiar patterns, mainly because, she notes, there are just so many variations on what can happen to people. The key, she says, is in the voice, how the writer makes basic plots seem new and exciting. One of her favorite devices is having a mysterious stranger enter the scene, upsetting the lives of otherwise unremarkable people in their undistinguished towns. Readers recognize and appreciate these elements of her fiction because of the familiarity, and then they wait to find the twists or new ways of expressing old truths.
In many of Hoffman’s novels, nature has magic properties, casting a spell that makes it almost another character. Growing things seem to respond to human actions. In one novel, a garden begins producing poisonous blooms with evil names, such as black nightshade, hemlock, and thorn apple.
Hoffman notes that all of her characters contain a bit of herself, that she writes emotional autobiography rather than using actual events in her life. Her depiction of a woman whose simmering sense of dread leads to full-fledged panic attacks, brain-chemistry disorders that strike randomly, will ring true to readers who suffer the same condition. The “Force,” as Hoffman labels it, may lead a character to narrow her realm of experience until she is no longer able to leave the house (the disorder is called agoraphobia).
Hoffman’s novels always include outsiders, people who do not fit easily into the greater world: the...
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