Postal Reading group
February 2023
Notes on the book The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag

The Witches of Cambridge by Menna van Praag is definitely a quirky book, and another which would be quite difficult to classify. Based on the title, my first thought was “This will be magical realism”, but then, of course, there’s elements of a romance and family drama too. It is this combination of elements which makes the book so quirky, like some of Cosima’s baking, and which left me with somewhat mixed feelings.

The basic idea is that the five witches of the title, all of them with different ‘powers’, meet regularly to discuss their latest reading; very much like a book group with a difference: they all meet on the roof of a Cambridge building, levitating while doing so. There’s Amandine who suspects that her husband is being unfaithful; then there’s Noa who can’t help seeing and revealing everyone’s secrets, and who is prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to lose this ‘gift’; and finally Cosima the master baker who creates an unfortunate love triangle when she attracts George with a spell baked into a pastry. The only problem is that her sister, Kat is also attracted to George.

From the start, the book was a light and quick read. In many respects it would make ideal holiday reading, but, for me at least, it arrived at the wrong time of year for that. As well as being a quick read, the book is not without its merits: Many of the characters are interesting, even if not all of them are particularly likeable. Then there’s the food, with the recipes in the back being a nice additional touch. Finally, the Cambridge connection will provide local interest for some.

However, despite being a quick read, and despite generally enjoying the book, its difficult to say that it was exceptional in any way. The main problem here is that there are just too many elements to the plot, especially for such a short book. Having created such interesting characters, the author has allowed insufficient space for the reader to really get to know them. Similarly, a lack of space meant that most of the strands of the plot remained undeveloped with too much being glossed over, and too many simplistic and ‘convenient’ resolutions. For the first few chapters, while the plot is limited to Amandine, Noa (her student), and Heloise (her mother), this could have been a reasonable story. However, the addition of Kat, George and Cosima, there’s just too much going on, especially as the different sub-plots are not really linked in any way. Ultimately there was probably enough material here for a whole series of witches books.

It should also be admitted that the magic element is fairly limited and ammounts to little more than discussing books while hovering above the roof of a famous Cambridge landmark. This could be either delightfully quirky, or frustrating depending on your viewpoint. Certainly afficionados of magic and witches will be disappointed with this book. This leaves just the love triangle which appears almost comical, especially once Cosima realises her mistake and starts, unsuccessfully, trying to put George off. Once again, the book defies expectation and this adds a further element of farce.

A further problem is that these entirely separate sub-plots are all resolved too quickly and easily, making the final ending a complete anti-climax: Santiago's black magic is easily defeated, Heloise gets over the tragic death of her husband, Amandine forgives hers, and almost everyone is reconciled. The only element which lets the reader know that it is not that simple is Cosima's death following childbirth, which I thought was an unnecessarily cruel fate. If there is any uniting theme in this book, it would presumably have to centre around the value of truth and honesty. In that case, one can certainly feel for poor Noa (possibly one of the more interesting characters), in a world where relationships often demand compromise and occasional white lies.

Finally, I couldn’t help noticing some inaccuracies in the book, the most serious of which concern the mathematics. As has already been mentioned the author’s notion of the fundamental theorem of calculus is way off, indeed it looks more like a Fourier series to me. While the other bits of mathematics are not wrong, it is difficult to imagine Kepler’s equation as being worthy of a mathematician with aspirations to crack some of the great unsolved problems. But, for that matter, I find it difficult to imagine the binomial expansion as having magical properties! While this may seem pedantic in a book which was probably meant as magical realism, getting it right wouldn’t have harmed the story in any way. Also, one of the final scenes in which Noa meets an engineer and future rock star in the library is probably unlikely as subject specific collections would be in separate libraries; indeed that entire scene adds very little to the story.

In conclusion, this is a quirky book, part magical realism and part romance, that makes for light and easy reading. It features some interesting characters, but is let down by the number of different threads which are not adequately brought together. Many of these are resolved too simply leaving the final ending as an anti-climax. The book is further let down, although not fatally, by some inaccuracies. The recipes at the end are a nice addition, but good luck finding some of the ingredients in the supermarket!

Comments by Nicholas Cutler