The Third Angel
by Alice Hoffman


Shaye Areheart Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-307-39385-2.
Reviewed by Jennifer Melville
Posted on 06/28/2008

Fiction: Mainstream

"The doctor believed there were three angels," Alice Hoffman wrote in her 2008 novel The Third Angel, "The Angel of Life, who rode along with them most nights. The Angel of Death, who appeared wearing his funeral clothes on those visits when there was no hope. And then there was the Third Angel. The one who walked among us, who sometimes lay sick in bed, begging for human compassion." Hoffman's novel magically intertwines the stories of three women and their life's quests for faith, love, acceptance, and meaning.

We are first introduced to Maddy Heller, an American lawyer in London for her sister Allie's wedding to Paul in 1999. The themes of Maddy's life are misguided love, jealousy, and faith. Maddy is a very lonely, insecure woman who is desperately jealous of her sister. She never feels satisfied with her life. Maddy resents her father for leaving them when she was a child, her mother for loving her sister more than herself, and her sister for being "perfect." She falls in love with a man whom she knows does not love her back. She longs for him to call her, all the while professing that she has no faith in love or marriage. She has spent her life searching for something to believe in. A bundle of contradictions and raw emotion, Maddy is a realistic, complicated, and memorable character.

The second portion of the book deals with the story of Frieda Lewis, the mother of Paul. Frieda was present in the first chapter, but it is here that her character truly unfolds. Her story takes place in 1966 London. Frieda is the intelligent daughter of a country doctor who moves to London in search for something spectacular. She works at the Lion Park Hotel as a maid and falls for an up-and-coming rock star, Jamie. In the end, Frieda married another man because he was appropriate, and Jamie was killed in an accident. She wrote the songs that made Jamie famous, yet she is still alive and with her infant son because he rejected her. "[The Third Angel]'s the most curious," Hoffman writes, "You can't even tell if he's an angel or not. You think you're doing him a kindness, you think you're the one taking care of him, while all the while, he's the one who's saving your life."

The final portion ties the stories together flawlessly. It is the story of Lucy Green, the mother of Maddy and Allie Heller. The story takes place in 1952, when Lucy (a twelve-year-old) joins her father and step-mother in London to attend a wedding. She befriends a man named Michael Macklin at the Lion Park Hotel. He is the only adult who takes the time to talk to and understand the child. The reader will recognize his name from the two previous stories. In Lucy, we find the concepts of the need for acceptance and love, the desire to be heard, and uncontrollable grief for something you believe is your fault.

The themes of love and marriage run through all three story lines. But Hoffman does not romanticize them in the least. "There was good love, and there was bad love," she wrote. "There was the kind that helped raise a person above her failings and there was the desperate sort that struck when someone least expected it." Her concept of marriage is of a failed institution that does not necessarily work and certainly isn't "happily ever after."

Another important element in the novel is faith. All three main characters are searching for something to believe in.

The Third Angel is an excellent book with the power to break your heart and make you look into your own soul as it delves deeply into human nature and motivations. Alice Hoffman's novel is meticulously detailed and flows smoothly. Her characters are deep, believable, and so human. I enjoyed this book immensely. This was the first of Hoffman's novels that I have read, and from this experience I wouldn't hesitate to buy her books again.


Alice Hoffman is an American author who earned her MA in creative writing from Stanford University and wrote her first novel at the age of twenty-one. She has since published more than eighteen novels. Her novel Practical Magic was made into a Warner Brothers movie staring Sandra Bullock. She has received many awards for her work and has been on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

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