I first learned of “Garden Spells” by Sarah Addison Allen through a friend who is a literary agent, and who said on her website that she’d like to see more fiction in that vein. She mentioned it alongside Alice Hoffman‘s “Practical Magic,” and as I was reading it, I could see that the comparison was apt.
Though similar to “Practical Magic” and Alice Hoffman’s overall ‘magical realism’ style, this more recent novel stands on its own, and while also calling Joanne Harris‘s “Chocolat” to mind, is fresh and unique. There is less of an occult feel, and more of a garden-variety magic, if you’ll pardon the pun. It does have a light, playful feel to it, though there is an aspect of menace to the story.
Any story that involves the making and eating of food is going to be at least marginally enjoyed by me, regardless of its other merits. Sarah Addison Allen has taken that theme and made it into something more mysterious, mischievous, and utterly irresistible to me by adding a dash of the supernatural. What might be metaphor in real life has become literal in this book’s world.
Claire Waverly is one of the main characters, the older of two sisters, and a caterer whose specialty is the use of edible flowers. She obtains her ingredients from a garden that has been tended by the women in her family for generations. She chooses each plant for its properties of instilling certain emotions and influencing behaviors in the people who eat her food. The magic may lie in the plants themselves, the woman using them, or a combination of both. I was a little unclear on that.
Other Waverlys have their own special talents, extraordinary gifts that exist in a fuzzy territory just outside the boundaries of real-world intuition and skill. The unrelated residents of the book’s small-town setting are somewhat aware of the uncanniness of this family’s abilities, usually looking the other way and chalking it up to coincidence and oddness. At other times, various individuals will secretly seek out one of the unusually gifted Waverly women if they have a problem that can’t easily be solved by more mundane methods.
Ms. Allen combines the elements of romance, misunderstandings, small town pettiness, and family ties in just the right amounts. It makes for a very satisfying read, keeping you turning the pages long past the time when you should have put the book down and done something more practical with your day. At least, that’s what happened to me.
The only issue I had with this novel was the way the author dealt with the climax of the story’s main, or at least most worrying, conflict. I’m trying not to give anything away, but I felt it was handled rather more lightly than was fitting, given that the conflict was looming over the characters (with or without their knowledge) for most of the book. When the inevitable happened, it seemed like it was taken care of too easily and neatly, and quickly as well. One of the side characters sustained an injury in the slight fray, which was rather marginalized and almost forgotten.
Even overlooking that, by the end, I was not convinced that the overarching problem was truly and thoroughly solved, though the characters apparently felt that it was. If I had to guess, I would say that the author had introduced a sticky situation that she did not quite know how to get her characters out of. She did the best she could, but to me, it strained credibility somewhat, even given the context of the book’s style.
With that one caveat, I thought this book was excellent. Since I finished it so quickly, I intend and expect to read it a second time before I return it to the library. I can see this becoming a part of my personal collection at some point. I will certainly seek out her other four books as soon as possible.
“Garden Spells” would make a great summer read — indulgent without being decadent or heavy, cheekily fun and rather sexy. It will likely have you wanting something sweet to eat, and maybe leave you a little curious to try edible flowers in your own food – used with caution, of course.
photo credit: madlyinlovewithlife via flickr.com