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An imaginative story of a woman caught in an alternate world—where she will need to learn the skills of magic to survive
Nora Fischer’s dissertation is stalled and her boyfriend is about to marry another woman. During a miserable weekend at a friend’s wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she’s transformed from a drab grad student into a stunning beauty. Before long, she has a set of glamorous new friends and her romance with gorgeous, masterful Raclin is heating up. It’s almost too good to be true.
Then the elegant veneer shatters. Nora’s new fantasy world turns darker, a fairy tale gone incredibly wrong. Making it here will take skills Nora never learned in graduate school. Her only real ally—and a reluctant one at that—is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. And it will take her becoming Aruendiel’s student—and learning magic herself—to survive. When a passage home finally opens, Nora must weigh her “real life” against the dangerous power of love and magic.
For lovers of Lev Grossman's The Magicians series (The Magicians and The Magician King) and Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy (A Discovery of Witches and Shadow of Night).
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After twenty years as a journalist, Emily Croy Barker had great fun turning her writing skills to fiction to produce The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic, her first novel. A graduate of Harvard University, she is currently executive editor at The American Lawyer magazine. She lives in New Jersey.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Much later, Nora would learn magic for dissolving glue or killing vermin swiftly and painlessly or barring mice from the house altogether, but that morning—the last normal morning, she later thought of it—as she padded into the kitchen in search of coffee, she was horribly at a loss when she saw the small brown mouse wriggling on the glue trap in front of the sink.
At the sight of Nora, the mouse froze for an instant, then tried to bolt, but only succeeded in gluing another paw to the sticky cardboard.
“Oh, crap,” Nora said aloud. “I can’t deal with this. Not on top of everything else.”
She was angrier at her roommate Dane, than at the mouse. Almost certainly he was the one who had set the trap, and then hadn’t had the decency to handle the result himself. Besides, the mouse problem was Dane’s fault in the first place. If he had not let Astrophel out—by accident, he claimed— Astrophel would not have attempted to cross six lanes of traffi c, and would still be alive and keeping the house mouse-free. The ashy remains of Nora’s cat now resided in a small cardboard box on Nora’s desk, and the mice had become a scrabbling, bold presence in the house.
She thought about simply letting the trapped mouse remain there for Dane to clean up, but she would have to step over it to fill the coffeepot, and what if the mouse got loose while she was still in the kitchen? Before she could lose her nerve, Nora picked up the glue trap with her thumb and forefinger, and moved toward the garbage can.
But the mouse was still alive. That was disturbing. After a second’s thought, Nora took a bottle of olive oil from the cabinet. The good stuff , Tuscan gold, encased in a tall bottle with a sprig of rosemary suspended inside, and she was fairly sure it belonged to Dane.
Outside, a block from her house, in a sliver of park, she carefully poured olive oil on the mouse and the glue board. The smell of the oil filled her nose; she was suddenly hungry. The mouse, its fur now sleek and dark with oil, rolled back and forth on the glue board. All at once it was loose. Nora jumped back, and the mouse scampered away, leaving shiny drops on the pine needles to mark its trail.
She walked back to the house thinking automatically that she had a good story for Adam, and then remembering that she wouldn’t be telling it to him.
On her way to the English department, she kept an eye out for him anyway. He was still in town, probably, unless he’d gotten an earlier flight. She might bump into him on campus. It would be awkward. Then maybe not so awkward. And he would realize what a terrible mistake he had made.
Instead, when someone spoke her name outside the department lounge, it was her adviser.
“Nora. I haven’t seen you all week.” Naomi smiled, showing an unnatural number of teeth. Nora braced herself, trying as always to find Naomi’s presence empowering instead of terrifying. Naomi was carrying her eight-month-old son in a sling on her chest: Last fall, in a single semester, she had produced both the baby and a book on sexual ambiguity in Dickens. Following Naomi into the lounge, Nora wiggled her fingers at the baby, who gave her a somber gaze out of bottomless dark blue eyes. “Where are the rest of the papers from your Gender and Genre section?” Naomi demanded. “I have only half of them.”
Nora unslung the backpack from her shoulder. “Here they are,” she said.
“I wish you’d finished them sooner. I want to look them over before I turn the grades in.”
“I’m sorry. I had to grade the Modern Drama exams, too. It’s been a busy week.”
“Yes, it has. That’s why I wanted to see those papers earlier.” Naomi leafed through her mail, flicking most of it into the trash and then sliding a thin envelope with Italian stamps into the lustrous leather jaws of her slim briefcase.
It was not the best time to bring up any kind of request, Nora saw, but she had no choice. “Actually, I wanted to mention,” she began, “I decided to apply for that travel fellowship, the Blum-Forsythe grant? I was wondering if you could write a recommendation for me.”
“I thought you weren’t going to apply for that. Can’t you ask Marlene to send out the recommendation that’s on file?”
“I realized there’s some work I could do at Cambridge.” The idea had come to Nora two nights before, as she lay awake at three a.m. The inspiration had less to do with John Donne, her thesis subject, than a sudden need to escape. “The form asks some questions that aren’t covered by the recommendation you wrote for me before. If you tweaked the old recommendation, it should be fine. It just has to be postmarked by Monday.”
Naomi pivoted, a wrinkle of annoyance visible between her strong brows. “You know, I’m boarding a plane Sunday to fl y to London. I don’t know if I’ll have time.”
“Oh,” Nora said awkwardly. “I didn’t realize you were leaving so soon.”
Naomi sighed and ran a hand through her hair, which was growing long, Nora noticed. Naomi usually had it cut on one of her frequent trips to Europe, one of the side benefits of having a boyfriend in London. “Come into my office, Nora. I want a word with you.”
As Nora lowered herself onto the steel- and-leather chair in front of Naomi’s desk, Naomi shut the office door. Nora’s stomach tensed. “I should tell you that if I do write you a new recommendation,” Naomi said, “I don’t know that I’d have anything very positive to add.”
Nora blinked. “Really?”
“I haven’t seen very much from you this year, just the one thesis chapter. It was fine, but you finished it back in November, and here it is May.”
“I wrote that Dickinson paper. ‘Wild Nights: The Erotics of Evasion.’ One of the journals was interested, so I’ve been revising—”
“It’s a good paper, and I’m sure you could publish it. But you shouldn’t be spending time trying to publish a paper so removed from your dissertation topic. I was hoping that I’d see at least one more chapter from you before the end of this school year.”
“Well, I’ve been working hard. I’m just not making much progress.” Nora paused, but Naomi said nothing, so she plunged on. “I’m starting to think—I’m just not sure I can say much that’s new about gender politics in Donne.”
“Nora, when you chose your topic, we discussed the pitfalls of writing about a canonical author like John Donne. It can be difficult to find unplowed ground.”
Hundreds of authors to write about, and yet it seemed that every single one had already been chewed over by packs of other hungry doctoral students. Even poets who had written only a handful of decent poems in their entire lives were the subject of lengthy, arcane, lovingly argued dissertations. And someone good, like Shakespeare or Brontë or Dickinson or Dickens—or Donne? They were mobbed by grad students and professors alike, like pop stars surrounded by screaming groupies.
“Yes, I know,” Nora said. “So I’m wondering whether it might be fruitful to look at another writer, too. I have some ideas about Donne and Dickinson, their comparative poetics, that I’d like to outline for you—”
Naomi held up her hand. “If you really want to write about Dickinson, the emphasis needs to be more American or early modern. Otherwise, you’ll get killed on the job market.”
“But I really am just—” Nora searched in vain for a way to describe the vast, barren desert of thesis research where she had been wandering without a compass. “Just stuck.”
The baby had been fidgeting inside the sling, his starfish arms and legs waving in the air. Now he opened his mouth and began to wail. Nora suppressed an urge to do the same.
“I need to feed him,” Naomi said, unsnapping the pouch, “and then I have a meeting with the dean, and then I’m going home to pack. So I’m sorry, I don’t have time to finish this conversation. We’ll talk after I get back in July.”
Nora nodded. “Sure.”
“If you want to e-mail me that Donne and Dickinson idea while I’m away, I’ll take a look at it.” She sounded less than enthusiastic about the prospect.
“Okay, I will. Thanks.” Nora stood up, picking up her backpack. “Enjoy London.”
Naomi looked up from behind her immaculate desktop. “Nora, I agreed to be your adviser because you’re very, very good—in some areas. You’re one of the best close readers of poetry I’ve ever worked with. You have a real knack for understanding the life of a poem. Fifty years ago, that would have gotten you a doctorate, a job, and tenure at any English department in the country. But today that’s not enough. You have to be able to address a big question—something to do with aesthetics, or colonialism, or philosophy—what it is doesn’t matter so much, but you need to play at that level. And that’s where you’re having problems.”
“I know, I know. Big questions aren’t my strong point.” In fact, Nora had plenty of questions, just less and less assurance that she could ever formulate answers to them. She added, a little desperately: “No ideas but in things.”
“Well, that has to change,” said Naomi, unbuttoning her linen blouse.
Nora closed the office door, but not before getting a glimpse of the baby’s mouth closing urgently on Naomi’s brown nipple.
Heading for the library, she checked her phone and found a message from her mother. “Nora, I was hoping you might be able to drive up this weekend. We’re going to the beach, and then to a fellowship dinner that you would really enjoy—”
She skipped to the next message, from her father’s number in New Jersey. Nora’s youngest sister’s voice, high and cheerful: “Hi, Nora, how are you? It’s me. Teacher shirk day, I have to go with Mom to her work, boring boring. I looked for those books of yours you said were in the attic, but I couldn’t find them. Do you know where else they might be? I need something to read. Bye.”
Ramona wasn’t looking hard enough. Nora could picture the box, left of the attic stairs, near EJ’s things. She was in the middle of leaving her own message when she walked smack into Farmer Dahmer, literally collided with him, right in front of the library.
Farmer Dahmer— as in Jeffrey—wasn’t his name, but almost everyone on campus, even the senior faculty, knew whom you were talking about if you mentioned Farmer Dahmer. He was a small man, around sixty, with a stiff, gray-brown beard like the wire pads used to scrub out sinks. He usually wore a faded plaid shirt, which Nora assumed was the origin of the agricultural portion of his nickname. Rumor had it that he was a superannuated grad student who had gone crazy after being unable to complete his thesis. Nora no longer found this story as amusing as she once had. He spent most of his days hanging around the library, where she had often seen him bent over a sheaf of papers in a carrel, swaying back and forth, mumbling to himself.
Farmer Dahmer looked even more stunned than Nora at their collision, and for a moment she was afraid that he would topple over. “I’m so sorry,” she said, clutching his arm. “Are you all right? I can’t believe I didn’t see you. I’m really sorry.”
“Oh, it’s you,” he said to her, blinking his small eyes.
“Um, yes,” Nora said uncertainly. “It’s me, all right. Are you okay?”
With a jerk of his arm, he shook himself free of Nora’s grasp. “Oh, I’m fine. Thanks to you. I very much appreciate it.”
“There’s no need to be sarcastic. I really do apologize.”
“No, I blame my own carelessness. You see, I was very hungry, and when I smelled the peanut butter, I simply forgot to be cautious.”
She nodded, unable to think of a proper response.
Farmer Dahmer’s head swiveled from side to side, as though he were reading something in the figures of passing students or the grass and oak trees of the quad. Then he looked back at Nora. “I suppose you want the usual reward. Is three enough for you?”
“Oh, I’m fine. Don’t worry,” she said, shaking her head vigorously so that there would be no mistake. “I’m just happy to know that you’re okay.”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all,” he said. “Let’s do the thing properly, shall we?” He squared his shoulders and gave her a brisk nod, then turned and marched away, disappearing around the side of the student union.
What a day, Nora thought, rubbing her head. She noticed for the first time the rich smell of olive oil mingled with rosemary hanging in the air. Hell, she must have spilled that stuff on her clothes this morning. She must reek. What had Naomi thought?
She went into the library and spent a few hours finishing up the Blum- Forsythe application. In the air-conditioned quiet of the stacks on the twelfth floor, where she had her carrel, the scent of olive oil and rosemary faded, much to her relief.
Heading home, she took the long way, past Adam’s favorite coffeehouse, the one where he used to hold his office hours when he was a teaching assistant because he couldn’t smoke in his assigned cubbyhole in the English department. Of course he was not sitting there now. Why would he be? Not running into him was a clear sign from the heavens that whatever had existed between her and Adam was over, finished for good, the invisible karmic connection between them severed and tied off forever.
She said aloud, but softly: “I wish I could see him again, though.”
Maggie picked her up at four for the drive to the wedding in the mountains. That was a relief. Someone to tell about this nightmare of a week.
“Oh, you’re kidding,” Maggie said, when Nora had gotten only partway into her story, as they shot into the I-40 traffic. “He flew all the way back here just to break up with you? And you really thought he was going to ask you to marry him. That’s so awful.”
“He said he had something big to tell me, and he wanted to tell me in person.”
“Well, that’s big.”
“And he is getting married. Just not to me,” Nora clarified.
“And who is this woman?”
“Another assistant professor there. An art historian. The French baroque—”
“—and they got to be friends, and it was all very casual, and then they went away for the weekend, an art exhibition in New York—”
“You don’t just go away for the weekend with a casual friend!”
“I know,” Nora said miserably. “He told me all this right after I picked him up at the airport. He wouldn’t shut up about her. As though I cared. And then he apologized and said he’d been meaning to tell me, but he didn’t want to do it over the phone. And he said he had other friends in town to see. So that’s when I said, well, maybe you can stay with one of them. I haven’t seen him since.” Maggie nodded her approval, but Nora grimaced. “Well, I kept thinking I’d see him and somehow we’d work it out, but he hasn’t called, nothing.
“Oh, and then just to top it off,” she added, “this morning my adviser gave me the something-has-to-change talk. One step away from the what-are-you-still-doing-here talk. My career and my love life, both going up in flames.”
“Oh, honey.” Maggie leaned over suddenly to give Nora a hug. The car veered toward the median for an instant, which made the gesture less reassuring than she intended. “Well, fuck it. So what if grad school doesn’t work out? There are plenty of other options. You should open your own restaurant and be a celebrity chef. I mean it. Tha...
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