Book Review: Garden Spells

“It was like the way you wanted sunshine on Saturdays, or pancakes for breakfast. They just made you feel good.”
― Sarah Addison Allen, Garden Spells
Book Title: Garden Spells
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Publication Date: 2007
Genres: Adult Fiction, Magical Realism
Goodreads Rating: 4.06 Stars
My Rating: 4 Stars

The women of the Waverley family — whether they like it or not — are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.

For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother’s unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town’s constraints. Using her grandmother’s mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business — and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life — upon the family’s peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories.

Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire’s routine existence upside down. With Sydney’s homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire’s own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.

As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney’s child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.

1. I love Sarah Addison Allen. I’ve already written about this author once before, in a review of her novel Lost Lake. In that review, I talked about Allen’s whimsey and her magical characters. This novel, Garden Spells, is one of the first book Allen published, and the whimsical magic in this novel is much more prevalent than in her later stuff.

2. Magical Realism? According to Goodreads, magical realism is:
…a fiction genre in which magical elements blend to create a realistic atmosphere that accesses a deeper understanding of reality. The story explains these magical elements as normal occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the “real” and the “fantastic” in the same stream of thought.
I mean… how wonderful does that sound? As a Harry Potter nerd, I love the idea of magic finding its way into our most trivial moments, and in this novel, each of the characters in Bascom are given some extra sense, some small ability, that allows them to have a bit of magic. Claire grows magical fruit, flowers, and herbs in her garden, and when she bakes with them, interesting things happen. Sydney can create the perfect hairstyle for any person. Evanelle (my favorite) has a compulsive need to give people gifts (like a match or a spoon), which the receivers always end up needing hours later. The magic in this book is small, and commonplace, but makes the book just a tad more enchanting.

3. These characters are so well developed. For such a light-hearted novel, the characters in this book are so full. So often with “fluff” books, the characters are one-dimensional, or they experience a straightforward external conflict that ends easily without too much drama. While I’m not knocking those books, it’s nice to read a “fluff” piece while still feeling like the characters have major internal conflicts and full pasts and futures. Seeing Claire develop on the page was such a delight, not only because she is the character I most strongly connected to, but because she also comes so far and has to do so much soul-searching to get to the place she’s at when the book ends.

If you’re looking for a light read, and you love a bit of whimsey in your life, Sarah Addison Allen’s novels do not disappoint.

“She was so Southern that she cried tears that came straight from the Mississippi, and she always smelled faintly of cottonwood and peaches.”
“When you’re happy for yourself, it fills you. When you’re happy for someone else, it pours over. It was almost too bright to watch.”

“When people believe you have something to give, something no one else has, they’ll go to great lengths and pay a lot of money for it.”

“Sometimes people who had been together for a long time got to imagining that things used to be better, even when they weren’t.”

“Men. You can’t live with them, you can’t shoot them.”

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