Friday, August 15, 2008

Things Were Only Halfway Perfect: Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

PhotobucketI picked up this one in a bookshop in Cape May, for the long drive back home after my family's annual trip to the Jersey Shore. I forget who it was that the books you read are forever after tinged with the memories of the place you read it (I think it was Inkheart). In this case, it was a fitting match: old-fashioned beauty with present-day grit showing through at the edges.

The Waverly women are gifted in a way their town quietly tolerates, especially when Claire Waverly turns her family's mysterious garden into the source of a lucrative catering business. A gifted chef, Claire's talent lies in creating recipes that have curious effects on the eater:

The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tea cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would notice only the beauty of your home and never the flaws. Anise hysop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful.

Claire is happy weaving magic into the lives of others until the handsome (and possibly magically gifted) professor next door takes notice of her, and her younger, wilder sister Sydney shows up with her daughter. She welcomes her sister with trepidation, but rejects every romantic notion Tyler tosses her way. Still grieving from the loss of most of her family, she slowly opens her heart to others as dramas great and small play out in their town of Bascom, North Carolina.

The writing reminds me so much of Laura Childs's mystery series, that gentle, domestic-tinged Southern character-driven narrative that still has its brushes with the ugly side of human nature. It's easygoing reading, full of fun supporting cast members like the Waverley's cousin Evanelle, whose gift for giving people exactly what they need works in some really creative and occasionally embarrassing ways, and Emma Clark, whose trophy wife ways and, er, unique talents are saved from one-note villainy by Addison Allen's skill with characterization. (A minor aside: there is a supporting older gay character whose story is handled with great sensitivity.) Even the mythic apple tree in the Waverly yard has its own distinct and rather charming personality. I loved all the little eccentric details that you find in good magical realism, that little unbending of reality in lines like "colorful paper napkins Claire had stored on top of the refrigerator fell over the edge and fluttered down around them like confetti, as if the house was shouting Hooray!" and "Waverleys always brought honeysuckle wine so people could see in the dark, but, whether or not the town knew it, the wine brought about a few revelations every Fourth of July."

The end of Garden Spells came together a little too easily for my tastes, with the climatic scene ringing awfully convenient, but it is sweet and fitting. Nevertheless, it's a warm and welcome addiction to the magical realist genre, and I can't wait to see what Sarah Addison Allen comes up with next.

*Sarah Addison Allen knows how to do an author website right. She has deleted scenes from her books, recipes, trivia, and a novelette in short stories called Tall Tales of Southern Belles, stories of the Waverly family through several generations


Penny Lane said...

Hey you! Sorry i have been off in a land of craziness and haven't been able to check in as often :(

But i am back!

This books sounds wonderful! I am in the middle of two series right now but am adding books to my list of novels to read, and this looks like something i am definiteley in the mood for! Thank you!

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