Thank you Netgalley and Random House for the pleasure of reading this novel.
The Witches of Cambridge follows the stories of Kat, George, Amandine, Noa, Heloise, and Cosima, all witches of a different flavor, as they go about life in modern-day Cambridge. Their lives are all entwined at the college, where they have magical meetings of minds once a month, drinking hot chocolate and floating over the buildings of the college.
It is at one such meeting that Noa is introduced, filled with the knowledge of all peoples’ secrets and an inability to hide them, a power that she regards as a curse. It is from these secrets and the aversion to her gift that triggers the rest of the novel, centering on the loves that all of them must face.
It seems to me that this novel starts with a group of characters who all have a very black and white way of looking at the world, without even realizing it, to slowly seeing the world as beautiful in all of its shades of grey. Heloise thinks she will never be happy again when her husband dies, but must come to realize that the world did not end. Amandine sees a hiccup in her marriage and fears the worst, but must realize that all is not what it seems, and so on and so forth. Each character has an obstacle that they must overcome in order to fully see how wonderful life is, as well as their magic. It comes to trying to overcome an enemy that threatens Noa’s very soul for them to open up to one another and allow help into their personal struggles. The main “antagonist” of the novel, though that may be too harsh of a word, is the only character not European, which came off as a little xenophobic, but still managed to work well in the plotline and can be explained by the “flavor” of magic used.
The main plot points of The Witches of Cambridge are ones of love in all its forms— unrequited, pure, familial, lustful, etc. It is a love story disguised as magic, and works so well at it. Reading this as a love story can make detractors of magic be able to write it away, but does not take away from the readers who love the magic involved.
This novel is written in the present tense and changes focus to the various characters’ lives with no transition, making it a novel that you must pay close attention to for fear you may get lost. However, it really works to tie in all of the storylines so that you don’t feel a disconnect between the main players even when their personal dramas play out separate from one another.
My favorite aspect of The Witches of Cambridge is the sense of magical realism that it imparts on the world. Unlike the urban fantasy genre (which I love) this novel has delicate touches of magic, but focuses mainly on the real and concrete of the world. In this way, Menna van Praag reminds me of Sarah Addison Allen, with a dash of Simone de Beauvoir in the tone and style. Witches of Cambridge makes you believe that magic is real, and that love is in everything that we do.
Five waves out of five, for making such a great splash !