Thursday, August 25, 2011

"Here on Earth," by Alice Hoffman

Our Principal Cast:

March Murray: Returning to her hometown after years spent raising a family, she still feels inexorably drawn to the boy who claimed her heart all those years ago.

Hollis: Raised as an unwanted orphan, and rejected by the one he loved, now that she's back, he doesn't intend to let her go, and he won't let anything get in his way.

Gwen Cooper: March's daughter, a troubled teen who finds solace and meaning in caring for an abused former racehorse.

Hank Cooper: March's nephew, who was adopted by Hollis after his mother died and his father descended into alcoholism. While he's looked up to Hollis his entire life, as matters between March and Hollis grow more serious, even Hank begins to question his adopted parent's reasoning.

The Supporting Cast:

Susanna Justice: March's childhood frenemy, current pal, and eternal busybody. Knows something isn't right about Hollis, and she's determined to find out what before March gets into something she can't get out of.

The Judge: Susanna's father, and March's father's legal partner. While an upstanding citizen and a good man at heart, even he has his dark secrets.

Judith Dale: March's housekeeper and surrogate mother figure - a kindly, giving woman with an incredibly private past.

Alan Murray/The Coward: March's estranged brother who turned to drink when his wife died in a fire. Lives in a shack out on the Marshes, and hasn't seen his son Hank in years.

Belinda Cooper: March's sister-in-law and Hollis' wife - whose suspicious death the entire town secretly blames on Hollis. And are they right?

The Word: So, if you're new to the blog, I should probably let you know that Alice Hoffman is one of my favourite authors of all time. Regardless of genre. Practical Magic, The Ice Queen, Second Nature, and my all-time favourite, The Probable Future. She has such a powerful grasp of small town environments and communities (which are my crack), and such gorgeous imagery and use of magical realism, that I could even consider some of her books (particularly Magic and Future) to be fantasies. So I was all eager and set to read Here on Earth, which made it into the Oprah Book Club.

March Murray grew up in a small town in Massachusetts, the daughter of the town lawyer. When her kindly father adopted an abandoned orphan named Hollis, she and Hollis formed an immediate attachment that neither society, good sense, nor March's cruel older brother Alan could tear asunder. However, when her father unexpectedly died, her brother Alan made it clear that Hollis was nothing but a burden, and Hollis eventually left town, dissolving their romance if not their powerful, unspoken bond.

Years later, March returns to the town of her youth, her troubled daughter Gwen in tow, to attend to the funeral of her beloved housekeeper and surrogate mother, Judith Dale. While March's head tells her it's best to avoid Hollis - who has grown incredibly wealthy in the intervening years and bought up most of the town and March's own childhood home - her heart is still inextricably bound to his.

It took me about fifty pages to realize, with some dismay, that Alice Hoffman was rewriting Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights.

I love Alice Hoffman.

I despise Wuthering Heights. And this comes from a loyal Jane Eyre fan. After reading that "classic" the first time, I had no desire to re-experience a story about a romanticized sociopath who makes everyone's lives miserable just for the hell of it. But oh, if only he and Catherine had been allowed to be together, none of this would have happened...

Here on Earth succeeds because it knows better - and because Hoffman realizes that the secondary characters have just as much, if not more of a part in the story. The literary world already knows the ultimate story of Catherine and Heathcliff - Here on Earth gives us March and Hollis, but it also uses the points of view of characters like March's daughter Gwen, her friend Susanna, and Hollis' adopted son Hank to give us an outside perspective on what their relationship looks like.

And it's not pretty. Towards the end of the book it gets downright terrifying. As much as their relationship is compelling, I am thankful that theirs isn't the only one in the book. Love is both a transformative and a destructive power in Here on Earth, depending on the folks it ropes together, but in either case, it can't be controlled.

Again, I've never cared for Wuthering Heights, but I appreciated that Alice Hoffman showed the dark side of that passion and where it might have led to had it not been thwarted by fate. That being said, don't read this book for March and Hollis - read it for Gwen and Hank, Susanna and Bill Justice and Alan Murray - the folks whose Heights counterparts were treated as so much collateral damage, but in Here on Earth rise up to surpass and survive the passion that eventually destroys the protagonists.


  1. Ah, secondary characters. They can make or break a book. It sounds as if they make this book a great read. Although I also hate Wuthering Heights.

    I read my first Alice Hoffman book this year, Practical Magic, and immediately went looking for more. I will be reading her books. Loved her writing.

  2. Oooh, try The Probably Future and the Ice Queen - those are my favourites. LOVE her. Once I get a bit more money I'll be getting her latest in hardback.

  3. Thanks for the recommendations. I checked out her latest and it does look good, but I'm thinking I will read these two first. :)

  4. I haven't read Alice Hoffman in a long, long time. To whit: I loved "Turtle Moon", but "Second Nature" broke my heart, so I quit reading her books. (part of it was also "too many books, too little time")
    Alas, your review was marvelous but I doubt I will be picking up this book.
    Barb in Maryland

  5. Bafriva - how did "Second Nature" break you heart? Was it the bittersweet ending?

  6. I'm sorry, I just found this book completely unbelieveable. I didn't see what March saw in Hollis...and the author was a little too dramatic for me about their love and it's intensity. I will admit it was interesting to think about the mysteries of the deaths of Hollis' wife and the horses, etc, but I just didn't find this realistic. I also thought the whole part about 'the coward' was a bit dramatic. I love stories about dysfunctional families, etc. but this just didn't do it for me. It was very dark.