Today I’m reviewing The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag. (Cambridge England, not Massachusetts.)
The witches are both a coven and a book group. They are career academics and small business owners with their own unique gifts. Kat is a Maths prof, her sister Cosima runs an Italian café, the treats of which are infused with herbal lore. Their fellow witch Amandine Bisset is an empath and a French Art Prof with the perfect life/husband/kids but who suspects that her husband is having an affair. Amandine’s psychic mother Héloïse is grieving the death of her husband François: an event she never saw coming. Lastly there’s George, Kat’s best friend whom she’s been in love with for years – while he’s been oblivious of the fact.
I loved the mentions of art and literature and wanted to eat nearly all the food. Food in Magical Realism is a key trope of the genre and it is a sensual pleasure that stands in symbolically for sex, or acts as foreplay. To quote Casanova: ‘Sex is like eating and eating is like sex, it is nourishment…’ Unfortunately I didn’t feel that van Praag delivered on the other side of this thematic equation. She stayed classy but too safe.
Still we’ve all used the consolation of a good meal when on a bad date… and there are recipes in the back of this novel.
You will see every one of the little plot twists coming, except thankfully not the 2/3 big ones which were built up a lot and required emotional pay-off for the reader. Rather than give up on it, I found myself intrigued as to how van Praag would unpack both plot points and character arcs. There were frequent shouts of “Oh no!” and giggles from me as I truly longed for every character’s emotional resolution.
I related a bit to Noa (a magical student of Amandine’s who suffers some trauma at University) but mainly I was drawn to Héloïse’s personal grieving process. You’d think I’d be invested in the personal preoccupations of the younger characters, but I preferred the older ones. I truly believed they had lived full lives, loved, hurt and learned to get back up again. Their communication was more honest, patient, tender and real.
Magical Realism tends to be set in the domestic sphere so I always like to assess the quality of men written by women. Whilst it’s lovely to see men being nice men and wonderful fathers who are open, and emotionally well adjusted, they didn’t feel real. I also didn’t like the cockiness of some characters. It was a turn off because the chemistry seemed contrived. One character is pure fantasy and duly turns out too good to be true.
There was only one male character I really liked: chock full of patience, tenderness and quiet, observant silver-foxy gorgeousness. I admired some of the romantic directness of van Praag’s men, when not clichéd. Like when guys tell you what they’re really thinking about when you assume they’re just staring into space.
They’re really checking on you peripherally in unwavering devotion. *sighs.*
This is a well-executed light and entertaining read in the Magical Realism genre; for academics, foodies, classic literature readers, polymaths and art lovers. 3/5.