Well, it’s been a while since I last read an Alice Hoffman novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1990 novel “Seventh Heaven” that I found online a few weeks earlier.
If I remember rightly, I chose this novel because the premise vaguely reminded me of a hilarious comedy movie from the 1980s called “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” and because I’m a fan of Hoffman’s writing style.
Anyway, let’s take a look at “Seventh Heaven”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.
The novel begins in the Long Island suburb of Hemlock Street in 1959. The street is an idyllic and perfectly ordered place until old Mr.Olivera dies and his wife moves out of town. Slowly, their empty house falls into disrepair- attracting a flock of crows and filling the vicinity with a strange stench. Eventually, a few of the local residents decide to fix up the house and convince Mrs. Olivera to put it up for sale.
The house is bought by Nora Silk, a recently-divorced mother of two. However, it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t quite fit into the prim and staid world of Hemlock Street. Meanwhile, local cop, Joe Hennessy. is feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with life after being promoted to detective and experiencing his first serious case. Local teenager Ace McCarthy learns that his brother Jackie is running some kind of scam involving their father’s garage.
One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a really atmospheric and well-written historical drama novel that is filled with excellent characters, I slightly preferred the other two Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read (“Turtle Moon” and “The Ice Queen” ) to this one. Even so, it’s still a really good novel.
Unlike the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, this one is more of a diffuse “slice of life” drama novel than a story with a single clear plot. Although there are several interesting, dramatic, romantic, depressing, cheerful and/or poignant sub-plots, this novel almost feels more like a disguised short story collection at times.
Yes, there is sort of a main plot, but this novel feels more like an interesting window into a time and place than a traditional novel. Still, it’s a really interesting one that also takes a little bit more of a “realistic” approach to the plot (eg: some things are left unresolved, there isn’t really any “deus ex machina” morality etc..).
Still, this isn’t to say that the novel is without Hoffman’s traditional magic realist elements. Even so, these were a little bit more understated than I’d expected. Yes, there are a few psychic moments (which are just treated as ordinary) and a couple of moments invovling ghosts and/or magic, but these are more background elements than central parts of the story.
For the most part, this is a slightly more “realistic” drama novel and this is also reflected in the novel’s writing – which, whilst still expertly-written, doesn’t contain quite as many of Hoffman’s signature vividly magical descriptions as I’d expected.
The novel’s historical elements are really well-handled, and the novel contains a vividly atmospheric version of late 1950s/early 1960s America that almost feels real.
Like most historical novels about this period of history, it shows the tension between the idyllic popular image of the time and the problems (eg: abusive relationships, bullying, crime, ostracism/snobbishness and, briefly, racism) lurking beneath the stiflingly pristine and polite surface. Yet, unlike some more modern historical novels, the story makes it’s points subtly and credits the reader with enough intelligence to make their own moral decisions about what is happening and about the story’s characters.
Amongst other things, one theme in this novel is the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The novel handles this in all sorts of interesting ways, such as setting the first half of the book in 1959 and the second half in 1960.
In the latter half of the book, many of the characters become a little bit more friendly towards Nora, loveless relationships begin to end, characters change gradually in other ways etc.. Even so, it is interesting how the segment set in the 1950s still contains a few subtle hints of the 1960s (eg: one of the teenage characters trying marijuana for the first time etc..). It shows historical change as a gradual thing, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being both similar and different.
Likewise, this is a novel about dissatisfaction. About how the pristine idyll of Hemlock Street is as much a prison as a sanctuary. How many of the characters dream of better lives, repress their feelings and/or hold secrets from each other. You really get the sense of tension between reality and fantasy when reading this novel and it is both poignant and fascinating.
In terms of the characters, this novel really excels 🙂 This is very much a character-based novel and, although Nora is possibly the main character, you’ll get to know many of the residents of Hemlock Street extremely well.
All of the characters come across as realistic people with quirks, flaws, hopes, feelings and dreams. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough. Although the story’s plot is a bit diffuse, the characters are one of the main things that will probably make you want to keep reading it.
This, of course, brings me on to the writing. Hoffman’s third-person narration here is as excellent as ever. This novel is written in the wonderfully flowing and vivid style that you’d expect from an Alice Hoffman novel. However, whilst this novel still contains the brilliantly imaginative, magical and evocative descriptions that you’d expect, the narration here can also often be a little bit more “mundane” or “down to earth” than you might expect.
Given that this story is a slightly more “realistic” drama, then this was probably a deliberate dramatic choice. Even so, the narration still flows really well and there are enough of Hoffman’s brilliant moments of description here to give the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect (albeit in a slightly more understated way).
In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 255 pages in length, the novel feels neither too long nor too short. Likewise, whilst the novel has a fairly “slow paced” kind of plot that focuses on everyday life and more small-scale drama, the story itself still moves at a reasonable pace thanks to Hoffman’s expert narration that just flows really, really well.
As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged excellently. Thanks to it’s historical setting and the very slightly more modern perspective on said setting, this novel feels like it could easily have been written any time within the past couple of decades. The characters are still as interesting as ever, the setting is still atmospheric and the writing is still really good.
All in all, although this isn’t the best Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good novel. If you want a story with an interesting historical setting, well-written characters and lots of atmosphere, then this one is certainly worth reading. Yes, it is slightly more of a “slice of life” drama than a traditional novel and there aren’t quite as many of the quirky magical realist elements as you may expect, but it is still a really well-written and interesting novel.
If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.