Somewhere in the spacious limbo where literary fiction and bestseller-dom overlap are the novels of Alice Hoffman: luxuriantly descriptive, unapologetically feminine works about love, romance, divorce and family relationships with enticing titles like "Practical Magic," "Here on Earth," "Blue Diary" and "Turtle Moon." Drawing upon the innate charms of natural scenery but often featuring a soupcon of the magical or supernatural, Hoffman lards her work with symbolism, albeit the obvious kind found in fairy tales.
It would be easy to dismiss Hoffman's work as Grade A Fancy schlock. Indeed, the first few pages of her latest novel, "The Probable Future," are so thick with cliches, even the insensitive reader may wilt just a little under the barrage of so much banality: "Spring fever affects young and old alike; it spares no one and makes no distinctions, striking when happiness is least expected, when joy is only a memory, when the skies are still cloudy and snow is still piled onto the cold, hard ground." This, alas, is pretty much par for the course in a Hoffman novel and may even be what passes for "elegant writing" in some circles.
For those willing to persevere, the story unfolds in a similar vein: "Unreliable was March's middle name, no one could deny that. Its children were said to be just as unpredictable.... But whether the season had been foul or fair, in all this time there had been only one baby to be born feet first, the mark of a healer, and that child was Stella Avery Sparrow. For thirteen generations, each one of the Sparrow girls had come into this world with inky hair and dark, moody eyes, but Stella was pale, her ashy hair and hazel eyes inherited, the labor nurses supposed, from her handsome father's side of the family."
When a Sparrow girl turns 13, we're informed, her special, slightly uncanny gift becomes evident. In the case of Colonial-era Rebecca Sparrow, progenitrix of the line, the gift was an inability to feel physical pain. Other Sparrow women have included a miraculous healer, a fire-walker, a finder of lost objects and a super-fast runner. Stella's grandmother, no-nonsense Elinor, has a gift for detecting lies. Stella's mother, rebellious Jenny, can see other people's dreams. At 13, Jenny defied her mother when she fell in love with handsome Will Avery (rightly pegged by Elinor as a liar), because she believed (wrongly, as it turns out) that she had seen his dream. By the time the novel opens, Will and Jenny are separated, although not before Jenny has wasted her young womanhood serving sundaes at Bailey's ice cream parlor to support her feckless, Harvard-dropout husband.
Their daughter, Stella, still loves and trusts her father despite his selfish, irresponsible behavior. Stella's own gift, when she turns 13, seems to be an ability to foresee the probable manner in which a person will die. She inadvertently gets her father into trouble when she begs him to warn a young woman, whom neither of them has previously met, of her impending murder. When the woman is in fact murdered, the authorities naturally suspect Will, who, whatever his faults, is no killer.
Despite all the special gifts enabling them to see things that other people cannot, each of these three Sparrow women fails to see what is right in front of her. The widowed Elinor missed seeing how her grief over losing her husband made her withdraw from daughter Jenny. Even now, Elinor fails to see how much her longtime friend and neighbor, Dr. Stewart, cares for her. Jenny, too, missed the fact that it was not Will whose dream she had intuited but someone who would have been far more suitable.
The novel becomes more compelling than its cliches and contrivances might suggest. And this, pretty much, is the pattern for much of Hoffman's fiction. The plots, often featuring a hidden secret, are pleasingly plotted, the characters and their relationships have a satisfyingly schematic symmetry, and the writing is colorful, expressive and easy to read. Not surprisingly, Hoffman is also a successful author of books for children and teenagers.
Hoffman has peopled this book with a cast of believable, if not especially memorable, characters illustrating a range of human behavior, from the almost pathological selfishness of Will Avery to the deep-seated kindness and thoughtfulness of men like Dr. Stewart and Will's shy but loyal younger brother, Matt. She also paints an engaging picture of small-town New England life. Her themes -- the importance of learning to see things as they are, the redemptive potential of kindness and love -- are just as appealing. Her fiction may not be literature in the honorific sense, it may not even be "good writing," but there are good reasons why many people enjoy reading it.