Friday, January 25, 2019

The Probable Future - Alice Hoffman

Summary:  The women of the Sparrow family have lived in New England for generations.  Each is born in the month of March, and at the age of thirteen, each develops an unusual gift.  Elinor can literally smell a lie.  Her daughter, Jenny, can see people's dreams as they're dreaming them.  Granddaughter Stella, newly a teen, has just developed the ability to see how other people will die.  Ironically, it is their gifts that have kept Elinor and Jenny apart for the last twenty-five years.  But as Stella struggles to cope with her disturbing clairvoyance, the unthinkable happens:  One of her premonitions lands her father in jail, wrongly accused of homicide.  The ordeal leads Stella to the grandmother she's never met and to Cake House, the Sparrow ancestral home, full of talismans and fraught with history.  Now three generations of estranged Sparrow women must come together to turn Stella's potential to ruin into a potential to redeem.  (Summary from book - Image from

My Review:   Alice Hoffman is one of my Go-To's for an excellent read.  I've never finished one of her books disappointed.  In fact, I have several of them (namely Blackbird House, Incantation, Green Angel, and Aquamarine) on my "favorites" shelf right now.  She's just darn good at what she does.  The first thing that caught my eye about this book (other than it's author) is the premise.  The Fort Worth Star Telegram called it "instantly alluring" and they weren't wrong.

In The Probable Future, we meet Elinor, Jenny, and Stella Sparrow -- a specially gifted family of women living in New England. Hoffman always manages to weave a fair amount of mysticism into her stories and this one was, much to my delight, drenched in it.  Elinor, the matriarch, is gifted with the ability to smell lies.  Her adult daughter Jenny has the ability to see others dreams and her thirteen-year-old granddaughter, Stella, can predict how people will die.  These three strong-willed, passionate women come from a long line of curiously empowered female ancestors.  Elinor's mother, Amelia, could ease the pain of childbirth with a simple touch, while her mother, Elisabeth, could make a delicious meal out of anything.  Literally, like rocks and mud.  Further up the family tree are women immune to fire or pain, those who don't need sleep, can see in the dark, or find things that are lost, and more.  While the story focuses on the three living Sparrow women, it swirls around the other histories as well, revealing bits and pieces of the ancestral line as the story evolves.  I was/am fascinated by the the whole concept of a family of women with these kind of powers and my only real disappointment in this book was that I didn't get to hear enough about them.

At the beginning of The Probable Future, the Sparrow women do not get along.  At least not for a good long while.  Their relationships are complicated, so laden with bitterness, secrets, sorrow, and regret that they almost can't help fighting and for a while, this dissonance between the women made it uncomfortable to read.  I didn't want to be there, in the middle of their bickering.  I wanted to shout at them to STOP FIGHTING as if they were my own children.  To make matters worse, the women also seem to be rather unfortunate in love, at least not in the traditional sense. I enjoyed each of their individual stories (though I'm still a little worried about Stella).  Much of the book is taken up with how each Sparrow woman confronts her past, begins to understand her own heart, and find contentment on her own terms.

Hoffman's writing easily stands its ground alongside some of my other favorite female authors -- Anna Quindlen and Elizabeth Berg.  Like them, her words are lyrically stunning and emotionally evocative.  You just sort of get swept away, whether you like it or not.  As for setting, Hoffman may as well have created a (highly-detailed) pop-up book, so fully did New England, the town of Unity, and Cake House blaze into existence.  I've only visited New England once, to see a dear friend who took me to all sorts of historical sites. Standing on the North Bridge, where the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired, was an experience I'll never forget.  The place positively thrummed with the soul-stories of those long dead. The past hung so thickly in the air, you could almost inhale memories. That is Unity. Long after I forget the characters and story of this book, and it might be a while, I will remember how it made me feel.  Nostalgic in a way I can't explain.  Homesick for something I've never really had, a city I've never visited, and townspeople I've never met. Ready to run down wild trails, explore muddy banks, count the stars, and wait expectantly; as if just there, in that place, anything could happen. 

My Rating: 4 Stars

For the sensitive reader:  A handful of swear words, some sexual discussion and mild/vague sexual encounters.  It's pretty obvious that some of the earlier Sparrow ancestors were believed to be witches, so those bothered by witchcraft (or perceived witchcraft) might find something to offend.

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