Saturday, September 01, 2007
Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, Garden Spells, is an enchanting, magical book. Anyone who is an Alice Hoffman fan should scoop up this book. Garden Spells is special in the way that Hoffman's Seventh Heaven was special. It brings to life characters and a community, mixes in a little magic, and tears you apart when you have to leave.
The first six years of Claire Waverley's life were terrible. She lived with her mother, who went from man to man, stole to keep them dressed and fed, and slept in cars. When her sister, Sydney, was born, they returned to their grandmother's house in Bascom, North Carolina. Claire saw it as a refuge, and clung to home. Sydney, like her mother, fled from the family history, and hit the road at eighteen.
At thirty-four, Claire owns Waverley's Catering, making dishes from the magical plants that grow in the legendary Waverley garden. For Waverleys have "gifts." Claire's is plants, and it's closely tied to the garden. To give a taste of that, there's a beautiful paragraph on pages 10 and 11. "Business was doing well, because all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. 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 nutty flavor of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing that something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not."
Sydney fled from Bascom, lived her mother's life, stealing and moving on, until she returned home with her daughter, Bay. Sydney didn't understand Claire, or her link to the family home. Sydney didn't want to be "different," the way the Waverleys were. But Claire and home were a refuge that Sidney needed for Bay.
Two sisters, with a great deal to learn about life and each other, have a great deal of untapped capacity for love. Neither woman knows love when it arrives on their doorstep. Bay, whose gift is to know where things belong, understands the peace that comes with love and home. This is a story of people learning to open up to love, just as the Waverley flowers open up and bloom.
Allen herself has a gift for characters. Claire, Sydney and Bay are interesting characters, with a great deal of depth. Evanelle, the family cousin adds a touch of humor, but also serves as a god-like character. Evanelle has a gift of anticipation. She gives gifts before people know they need them. Each character created by Allen has been skillfully drawn to bring them to life, the Waverleys, their loved ones, and their enemies.
Sydney Addison Allen uses words for a magical effect. Her phrasing and descriptions add to the enchantment of the book. The descriptions of men in love giving off sparks or lighting fires is captivating.
Local legends are important in this story, as one professor remarks. The Hopkins men marry older women. The Clark women have a talent for sex. Then there is the Waverly magic, shared by Claire, Sydney and Bay. Just as in a Hoffman book, magic is a part of life, accepted and not explained.
Garden Spells combines love, longing, anticipation, and fear, mixes it with magic, humor and legend, for a recipe for enchantment. Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells is a beautiful book that casts its own spell over the reader.
Sarah Addison Allen's website is www.sarahaddisonallen.com
Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen. Bantam Books, ©2007, ISBN 978-0-553-80548-2 (hardcover), 290p.