Imagine if you had the ability to feel others’ emotions, know someone’s unspoken deepest secret, or weave spells into baked goods to achieve your heart’s desire. This is the norm for Amandine, Noa, Kat, Cosima, and Heloise, a group of women that can confide only in one another their magical abilities. Amandine is a professor at Cambridge, where they meet together as the Cambridge University Society of Literature and Witchcraft.
Throughout The Witches of Cambridge, each woman is in the middle of a conflict, and they rely on each other—and sometimes a little bit of magic—to get through their trials. Amandine suspects her husband of cheating on her, and her student Noa possesses the ability to see others’ truths. Noa regards her gift as a curse, and will do just about anything to silence it. Kat and her sister, Cosima, both have their hearts set on George, causing a rift between the two sisters. Cosima’s selfish actions could cost her more than her relationship with her sister. And Heloise, Amandine’s mother, gets a second chance at love.
The Witches of Cambridge is extremely character driven; the first twenty percent of the novel involves introducing the reader to each of the women. It took me until nearly half of the way through to keep each of the women straight; unfortunately, I started to lose patience with the back history of the women and was hoping for more of a plot. To the end, The Witches of Cambridge focused mainly on the women, their relationships with one another, and the conflicts each of them faced.
The Witches of Cambridge was the first book I’ve read by Menna van Praag, and I do not think it will be my last. Despite the rather slow pacing of the book (I’d consider this more of a slice-of-life piece), I did find myself interested in some of the separate story arcs, mainly Amandine’s and Heloise’s. I loved Amandine’s story of how she and her husband fell in love, which made it heartbreaking to even think he was cheating on her. I eagerly turned the pages to find out what her husband, Eliot, was hiding from her. Heloise, a widow, deeply loved her husband and has been alone for many years. Through literature, she discovers a connection with a widower whose books she purchased at the secondhand bookshop. Noa’s story line was less interesting to me, though her gift is intriguing. I connected the least with Kat and Cosima’s chapters, though I liked the idea of baking spells into pastries and enjoyed the recipes posted at the end of the book. I could have done without their love triangle, and did not like Cosima at all.
I think The Witches of Cambridge holds the most appeal for fans of Sarah Addison Allen (I loved Garden Spells), Alice Hoffman (Practical Magic comes to mind), and Joanne Harris (particularly Chocolat, for the connection to baking). I’m glad I gave this book a chance, even if in the end it wasn’t quite what I expected.
Jennifer graduated from the University of Utah with a BA in English. She occasionally dabbles with her own fiction writing, particularly with the Young Adult and Paranormal genres. She currently resides in Utah with her husband and daughter.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Ballantine Books. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.