When I first started reading The Third Angel, I didn’t honestly care for it, despite the fact that Alice Hoffman’s prose is as lovely as ever. She is a master of a sudden and lyrical turn of phrase that seems as effortlessly graceful as a dancer’s casual step. Every line has magic and poetry in it, the kind that makes you smile and, more than occasionally, look back to reread a phrase or passage. An example: “It was that silver-colored time between night and morning, when the sky is still dark, but lights are flicking on all over the city. It was quiet, the way it is in winter when snow first begins to fall.” How perfectly and specifically evocative, concrete detail spun from froth and lace, and without a wasted syllable! Her prose has always been elegant, the way Earthbound angels would write, and she only gets better.
What bothered me in the opening pages, though, was her characters. They were a little too well drawn, a little too immediate. And they were, frankly, unlikeable. They all seemed hellbent on doing the worst possible and most hurtful things—to the people they love and to themselves.
I should have known better. I should have remembered that Alice Hoffman’s coat has magician’s sleeves. There are surprises hidden within, always. Some are magical, some are cruel. But they are marvelous, all of them. As always, there is magic in her book: blue herons, white rabbits, and, yes, angels. But it’s subtle enchantment, as in the very best works of Isabel Allende, Ray Bradbury, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, like a hint of spice in a cake that you savor even as it fades, but that you can’t quite identify.
A few chapters in, I realized that I’d misjudged the The Third Angel and its characters, because I didn’t yet understand how deeply they were wounded. This is a book that reminds us that the heart heals itself with scar tissue, hard and ugly, but that beneath there is, sometimes, something lovely and enduring. That something is worth finding, and it makes all the difference. The novel is stitched together like a quilt from three integrally-integrated (wow, that’s some awkward alliteration) novellas, which examine the lives of three women, decades apart, each of whom has reached some crucial crossroad in her life. Don’t get the idea that these London hotel-centered stories are just part of a collection. They are bound together in devastating retrospect to form a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.
In the first, a successful New York attorney, Maddy, comes to London in 1999 has has a sudden affair with Paul, her sister’s fiancé. This was the point at which I had a hard time liking Paul or Maddy. Thankfully, I kept reading. After the night of fiery passion, Maddy copes with her sister’s impending marriage and with the hopelessness of loving the wrong man. That’s when she learns of Paul’s terminal illness—which happens to echo the cancer her mother faced when Maddy was a girl. The wounds run deep.
The next sections sifts back to 1966 London and the era of drugs, rock and roll, and free love. Now we get to know Frieda—the woman who will become Paul’s mother, and who we have just seen lose her son—as a young woman. Frieda falls for a singer trying to write a song. She knows he is doomed, and that he will break her heart. Love burns, but it is not wise.
The final section takes us back again, to 1952 and to Maddy’s future mother, Lucy Green. Now we see Lucy as a prematurely wise and book-loving 12-year-old. Lucy travels with her father and stepmother from New York to London for a wedding, where, at the same hotel, she becomes an innocent catalyst to a devastating event involving a love triangle, one that we’ve already seen echo through the other sections. Hoffman mingles the threads of these the three stories, gazing without blinking into forces that cause some people to self-destruct and others to find the inner strength that lasts a lifetime.
The novel is drenched in love, with all is beautiful, broken, and devasting glory. There is romantic love, of course. Hoffman’s characters fall in love with the wrong person, or with the right person at the wrong time. Hoffman writes about the love of parents for children. As one character puts it: “It will shock believe how much you’ll love your child. Nothing else will ever matter.” Love breaks the characters in the most devasting way imaginable, but it also rebuilds them, and binds them together in the most unexpected ways.
Hoffman writes as eloquently and movingly about death as she does about life and love. It is Frieda’s doctor father who describes, so beautifully, the Third Angel of the title. He says that when he went to visit a patient, there was always an angel riding with him: the Angel of Life or the Angel of Death. He never knew which until he arrived. But there is a third Angel, too. “You can’t even tell if he’s an angel or not. You think you’re doing him a kindness, you think you’re the one taking care of him, while all the while, he’s the one who’s saving your life.” He walks with us. He can meet him any time, anywhere. Hoffman’s characters are complex but flawed, yes, and they do terrible things, betraying those they love or even themselves. But they have heroic qualities as well. By mending their broken lives, they, themselves, sometimes become the Third Angel.
Hoffman doesn’t paint portraits; she sketches. We don’t see her characters through their whole lives. We only see moments, the most crucial and transforming ones, the moments that shape who we’re going to be. Now and then, maybe, the moments that can turn us in to the Third Angel. The Third Angel isn’t Hoffman’s best book. To me, that’s still Practical Magic. But it’s an amazing read, lovely and haunting, one that I find I’m still thinking about days after I turned the last page.
By the way, the novel features a book written by one of the characters. The text of that novel, The Heron’s Wife, isn’t given. However, Ms. Hoffman has released it on her blog. You can read it here.