Book review: ‘Witches of East End,’ by Melissa de la Cruz

July 22, 2011

The title of the first book in Melissa de la Cruz’s new series for adults brings to mind John Updike’s “The Witches of Eastwick.” Indeed, the two books have several similarities, including three modern-day witches, each representing a female archetype: the earth mother, the repressed intellectual and the wild child. Add to that a small town, an old mansion deserted for years and two mysterious brothers whose arrival upsets the balance of quotidian seacoast living. No, this isn’t Updike, but it’s something we recognize: the classic setting for a magical and romantic page-turner.

The Long Island town of North Hampton does not appear on any map because it’s shrouded in a mysterious fog that enables it to appear and disappear. We soon learn that three witches, the Beauchamps — a mother and two daughters — have been censured and forced to live here through several lifetimes as mortals for practicing their craft during the Salem witch trials of 1692.

It’s always disconcerting when a writer suggests that there were real witches in old Salem, where the executions of innocent men and women were, in fact, motivated by fear, jealousy and greed. If handled poorly, such a pose can seem to make light of the most notorious religious persecution in American history. But fortunately, de la Cruz handles this situation sensitively by demonstrating how easily paranoia could take holdagain in modern society.

Alhough the Beauchamp witches have been behaving well for centuries, recent events in North Hampton have made it impossible for them to stay away from magic. We meet Freya first. Sipping champagne at her engagement party, she soon ends up in a steamy bathroom sex scene with her fiance’s brother. Though morally deficient, Freya is almost as irresistible to the reader as she is to the men in her life. Her bartending magic has her mixing up love potions for needy locals, which is a lot of fun for all concerned — until a young girl goes missing.

Freya’s sister, Ingrid, the town librarian, is a healer who can read the future. Her empathy for a fertility-challenged co-worker leads her back to the practice of magic. The success that follows soon has new patients lining up on the library steps.

Their mother, Joanna, has always feared that her maternal skills are less than stellar, especially since the mysterious disappearance of her husband and the loss of their son. Long ago, Joanna cast a binding spell that has protected North Hampton from discovery, but the effect is weakening. To make matters worse, an environmental disaster has unleashed a poisonous gray sludge that no lab can identify. When a friend succumbs, Joanna performs her most powerful magic, but that creates a number of other problems for the town and her family.

Besides the Beauchamps’ magical adventures, there’s a good deal more to the story: Norse legends, secret passages and other worlds. As with most first books in a series, this one suffers from some gaps in the narrative, plotlines suggested but not developed and the occasional “to be continued” foreshadowing. We can expect that de la Cruz will reward our patience in future titles.

Fans of her young-adult “Blue Bloods” books will love this new series and be thrilled by the appearance of two familiar characters. But “Witches of East End” is certain to attract new adult readers as well. The pacing is masterful, and while the witchcraft is entertaining, it’s ultimately a love triangle that makes the story compelling. De la Cruz has created a family of empathetic women who are both magically gifted and humanly flawed.

Barry is the author of “The Lace Reader” and “The Map of True Places.”

witches of east end

By Melissa de la Cruz

Hyperion. 273 pp. $23.99

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