“Slipping my clothes off, I took a minute to check myself out in the mirror. [...] Damn. I may not be Jessica Alba, but I could probably have been her body double.”
You got to love a heroine like Hadley Bishop, at least according to the author’s agent, who gushes that the main character of "Life's a Witch" “is impossible not to like”. Well, I seem to possess special abilities, for not liking Hadley turned out to be very, very easy. In fact, the heroine’s personality is one of things I disliked most in this debut, which has a lot of potential to get a spot among my personal five worst reads of 2012 and which should have been titled better “The Witch is a Bitch” in my opinion. But I will return to Hadley later.
I read "Life's a Witch" during the short time span it had been available as a cheap and self-published Kindle version on Amazon – that is after its supposed stellar success on the novel writing platform Wattpad.com, and before Simon and Schuster, the new licence holder, made the author take it off again (makes sense) – but after the success story of the acclaimed internet novel aimed at young adults was suddenly mentioned everywhere – including Publishers Weekly and Wall Street Journal. Since there are other – in my opinion much more talented – self-published authors making the leap to be represented by major publishing houses, too, I chalk the strangely broad media coverage down to the fat foot the author already had inside the publishing business’ door due to her former position as an editor at the magazine American Cheerleader before it was sold. I also glimpse with lots of skepsis towards the 15 Million readers the novel boasts to have attracted and satisfied as it was born and developed on the writing platform Wattpad.com. When I had a look, only 900 comments were attached to the entry – and a lot of them reactions of the author to every praise and question. I admit I am not familiar with how the community works, but I guess readers rather mean clicks, because A) I certainly have been tempted more than just once to stop reading and to delete the file from my Kindle with a flourishing gesture, and B) because I had never heard of "Life's a Witch" before and I believe the fame of a novel loved by 15 Million readers would have reached us at Goodreads.com no matter what format.
Do you fear this review will be getting far too long? Do not worry. The plot is easy to summarize in a few sentences, because it does not include a lot of turns or characters or layers and unfortunately also not a lot of world building:
Hadley Bishop, the eighteen-years-old high school queen bee and member of the self-declared “good” witch coven “The Cleri” gets to know that the “bad” witch coven - nicknamed “The Parrishables”- has murdered all the parents of all students in her weekend spell-training group including her own mother. Because of her god-given ability to manipulate and lead, she quickly whisks away the complete group of twelve to her family’s magically hidden and enforced summer cabin and trains them to stop the bloodthirsty and powerhungy witches on their path to world dominion as if they were her cheerleading troupe from school (repeat, repeat, repeat). On her day off, when everbody else is trying to stock up the cabin with basic necessities (“Maybe my priorites were a bit ass-backwards, but I figured I could live with whatever food they came back with; finding the right shoes to match my future outfits while also being nature-appropriate was a tougher feat entirely.”), Hadley falls in love with a mysterious and beautiful boy who has either been stalking her, because of her irresistible girl qualities (Hadley’s guess) or because the bad witches sent someone attractive out to get a better angle on what is left of their enemy coven (my guess). Apart from some flashbacks, some group-dynamical outbursts, some ghostly Mom-action and certainly some fighting that’s it. Because of the final question, if dead means really dead when you are a witch, there is still room for a sequel or two.
I believe the author of "Life's a Witch" is an avid connoisseur of chicklit and – like most of us – a huge admirer of the Harry Potter series (the bad witches, who are returning and have to be fought by teenagers, the silly pseudo-latin spells like “Immobius totarium”). What she probably did not enjoy so much were the Twilight books. Therefore she has made the effort to create a heroine who is the exact opposite of Bella Swan: A truly beautiful and physically fit girl who is popular, because she wants to be popular. Someone who knows her own potential and flaunts it with all her might. Someone who is sure of her own superiority, her magical powers of persuasion and the infailability of her own opinion and judgement. Someone who is unfortunately very conceited, self-centered, domineering, power-hungry, patronizing and condescending, but thinks she is the universe’s answer to her generation’s prayers.
Here is a choice of quotes out of many to illustrate Hadley’s opinion of herself. Enjoy:
“As class president, I made decisions based on what would be best for my classmates. I told everyone what to vote for, what they should care about and set the standards of excellence among my peers. When people didn’t do what I wanted them to, I convinced them to see the errors of their ways.”
“If I had to leave the school in someone’s hands after I’d graduated, I’d want it to be someone like me. Fair, commanding, but friendly. Sofia was all this, which made her a perfect number two.”
“I personally couldn’t care less what anyone thought of me here at Astor as long as I was still the most influencial girl around.”
„I could tell they were all waiting for direction from me. It was clear on their faces. And I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. I was the oldest. I tended to take control of every situation. I was popular, powerful and pretty, everything that usually afforded a person the attention of their peers.”
Hadley does not have friends at school; she has subjects and she behaves in front of them – and in front of her magical training group, too, like the dictator of a small country. She makes all decisions, as random as they often are, by herself and distributes information about the situation, the revealing dreams she has and the magical cabin only in a very filtered way and only to the older teens. She expects blind trust, but at the same time she cares only half-heartedly for the fate of the kids she had made her responsibility. My jaw dropped a mile, when she announced that she wouldn’t share her parents’ room in the cabin with anybody, and a few miles further when she explained the group's sleeping arrangements in retrospect:
“It was sort of first-come, first-serve around here, which meant that some unlucky individuals were always stuck with the floor in the living-room or on a row of uncomfortable chairs lined up.” Hadley is the only one who had time to pack a duffel bag before fleeing their town, but she does not consider sharing her toiletries or teaching the others the skin-cleaning spell she had invented. And I couldn’t believe how everybody put their lives into the hands of a girl, who – even after years of weekend group sessions – does not remember every member’s name: “Sonya, I think her name was. I’d never actually talked to her, but I’d seen her around for years. So, if I didn’t know her, it was pretty fair to say she didn’t know me either.”
After a small mutiny Hadley promises everybody a chance of involvement, but solves the tiny attack on her single-handed rule by soaking her prep talk with persuasion magic, which makes everbody enthusiastic, hopeful and finally willing to follow. Unbelievable, but true: The heroine’s personality does not evolve during the book.
A second thing that bothered me was Hadley’s perception of the younger coven members, like 13-years-old Penelope, who readers of the novel should identify themselves with: “And now, the younger girl had permanently attached herself to my lower half. [...]“Please don’t leave us again,” she whispered. Her voice was inaudible to anyone else but me.” How small and young and needy does the author think 13-years-olds are? How big is Hadley supposed to be? An Amazon of Hulk-like proportions?
The last aspect that was pretty unacceptable to me was the ostensibly easy distinction between “good witches” and “bad witches”: “Bad witches” use their god-given powers “for personal gain or wrong-doing”. The villain witch in this novel is confidently condemned without much ado: “His heart is black, so is his soul, and when it’s time to meet his maker – which I anticipate will happen soon – he will be punished for all he has done. The otherworld does not take kindly to those who defy its laws.” But I thought, how much does his behavior really differ from that of his “good” counterparts? Hadley’s Dad is a fundraiser. He spends his persuasion magic “for a good cause” – but what if somebody forks out money, because he or she can’t help it in spite of having had different plans for the cash? Hadley’s Mom sells magical perfumes and Hadley herself worked herself up the high school social ladder by manipulation, by putting designer-clothes-illusions on her everyday wear and by bespelling her skin to glow. The “Cleri’s” solution to keep everyone’s power-hunger in check is teaching less and less useful spells, but later Hadley finds out that all her peers had been busy inventing their own spells to facilitate their lives. When I was reading the verbal exchanges between Hadley and her adversary, it reminded me of countries at war, who both feel their case is right and just and who are both only different sides of the same coin.
There is not much to say with respect to the severe case of instant-love the reader gets served. Maybe it is easiest understood by a short quote: “I could no longer deny it: we were meant to be together. But I still didn’t fully trust him.”
Here I rest my case. As you can see, I do not recommend to read this book. But if you feel the urge to try, I won’t scowl at you. It always comes down to personal taste. I liked Bella Swan in spite of her shortcomings. Maybe you like Hadley Bishop because of hers.