In this coming of age tale, Gretel and Jill are Long Island teens in a contemporary setting, Franconia, a place so bereft of imagination that all the local enterprises use the town’s name for theirs.
There are moments in which magic enlivens the story and provides a context. In one, Gretel and Jason torment their hated stepmother by tossing her belongings, one by one, out the window of a moving car, breadcrumbs back to safety. In another, drawn by an enticing aroma, Gretel meets the old woman who lives in the creepy house at the edge of town. No witches there. Hoffman gives us one of the central images of the novel. The old woman had planted roses a lifetime ago, and the breadth and large aroma of that lifetime permeates the air. The rose imagery reappears when Gretel visits Pinelawn with her terminally ill mother, Franny, and later in Florida when Margot gets Gretel a rose-colored bikini. Finally, Gretel smells the roses she planted at her home, years after she has moved out, and is just sitting in front of it.
In a driving accident, Jason (Hansel?) begins to experience fire, a creature trying to squash and burn him in the overturned vehicle. (maybe like the feel of being in an oven?) Later, drug-addled, he is walking barefoot three miles through snow when his T-shirt bursts into flames. Living in a flop house, he sees sparks and fire where no others can see them and knows the creature is waiting for him. Eventually he succumbs, to find the creature is himself. Mysterious ball lightning damages Margot’s home, then she wakes to find her back lawn carpeted with spider webs. Finally four-ounce hailstones pummel and penetrate her house. Strangely these horrors lead to true love. Margot and Gretel visit a strange gypsy-like healer in florida.
There is a shift in mid-book from first person to third. I was uncertain why this was necessary. Then back and forth again. I found this a bit jarring.
I enjoyed the chapter titles. For example, Gretel
in the chapter in which Gretel tosses her stepmother’s things out the car window, The Rest of your Life
when Gretel, Margot and Gretel’s mother go to Pinelawn.
Deciding to live or die – Jason – Margot – Jill - Gretel – all are faced with situations in which they must decide to move forward, remain where they are or sink. Although different characters choose different paths, there is hope at the end of several of them. It was an enjoyable read, with enough spice to make the interest more than a mere curiosity about what might happen to this or that character. The extra elements, fairy tale touches, were very satisfying. And not bit of gingerbread in sight.
If you like the sort of magical element that Hoffman brings, you might enjoy her later novel-in-stories books The Red Garden
and Blackbird House