In "Book of Shadows," Phyllis Curott takes us along on her double journey -- she's rising in the music business, doing legal work in New York for huge stars she doesn't name, while simultaneously going down into the underworld of dreams and witchcraft and yellowed books about Egyptian goddesses. Neither world, she discovers, is what it appears. But when she starts talking about the scent of apple blossoms filling the air, or about bonding with good, strong female mentors with names like "Nonna," or about facing her inner shadow, your mind may wander off as you try to figure out who the unnamed stars are.
Curott and her fellow witches use the word "sacred" so often that it feels like Chinese water torture, and they frequently proclaim their outrage over the persecution witches faced 500 years ago (as if they were the only religious group whose members got killed and called names). Curott never comes out and says that men are evil, and two or three of the peripheral male characters seem kind enough, but it's implied that most men throughout history got their power by stealing it from women. Like on Lifetime, the TV channel for women, almost all the females in "Book of Shadows" have been sexually assaulted or stalked. They sob a lot and comfort each other. They join hands in a circle; they learn to accept their bodies. They each take one bite of an apple, which represents forbidden knowledge, and say things like, "I honor the nourishment and the strength the Goddess has given me -- she sustains me with the fruits of life." After they've all bitten into it, they linger in the circle for hours, and Curott asks Nonna, "May I take the remnants of the apple?" Nonna "wrapped them carefully in a napkin and hugged her." Way too much yin.
If only the author had a sense of humor, "Book of Shadows" wouldn't be so unbearable. (Curott claims several times that she does have a sense of humor -- a dead giveaway that one is terribly, terribly unfunny. You learn that from personal ads.) It's not that I'm uninterested in magic or the true nature of chaos. It's that I get uncomfortable when Curott marks a pink candle with her name, the astrological symbol for Venus and the word "love." Her life grows steadily more gentle and steadily more scented. Her research is scented, too, even though her publishers have made a big deal out of the fact that she's a Harvard grad. For instance, she claims that in the "patriarchal religions" -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- "the father God [is] transcendent and removed," while in witchcraft "the mother Goddess [is] immanent and present in the world." She's largely right. But there have always been mystical strains within those Big Three where God was so "immanent" some people actually died from being overfilled with glory. I could go on about this -- and so could Curott, who's now the president of the world's largest Wiccan organization.
One thing you have to hand to her: This good-looking, high-powered Manhattan lawyer re-created her life. When she didn't find a path that suited her, she paved her own. That it looks corny to people like me means, in the long run, absolutely nothing.