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Garden Spells offers sweet whimsy, magic
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‘Garden Spells'

By: Sarah Addison Allen

Price: $5.99

Rating: Three out of five bookmarks


This is a book that I have been wishing to read for a while. Sarah Addison Allen, author of popular books including "The Sugar Queen" and, most recently, "The Girl Who Chased the Moon," writes stories focusing on Southern women and their emotional struggles, mixing in whimsical, fairy-tale imagery. In particular, Allen weaves in themes involving the mystical or healing properties of food, tying what the characters eat directly to their emotions and dreams. Since I recently started in on my own gardening experiment to raise healing plants (sadly, even my chamomile, which is supposed to be fairly indestructible, succumbed to my lack of a green thumb), I was drawn to read Allen's debut novel from a few years back, "Garden Spells."

The story of "Garden Spells" follows Claire Waverly, a 30-something living alone in her family's house in small-town Bascom, North Carolina. She runs a successful catering service, preparing her mood-affecting dishes with the flowers grown in her magical garden, which includes a mysterious apple tree that has a mind of its own. Claire has not wavered from her life's routine in years, ever since her younger sister Sydney ran away from home at age 18, and both their grandmother and mother passed away. Then all of a sudden, Claire's life is completely turned around: Her new neighbor Tyler is showing an attraction to Claire, so Claire tries to ward off his advances by cooking him food meant to quell his adoration. Then long-lost Sydney returns home, along with her 5-year-old daughter Bay, which stirs a wild flood of rumors throughout the town. The two sisters, estranged for so many years, find that reuniting is more difficult than they thought, but gradually both must come to terms with their pasts, their family legacy, and they must learn to embrace the present and all of its new opportunities.

It was a little odd for me to return to this type of character-study novel, right after having read an action adventure narrative where the plot was in constant, almost exhausting, motion. "Garden Spells" does not have a busy plot, and takes its time to delve into character relationships and psyches. In fact, the most action of the story happens right at the beginning and then again near the very tip of the end, leaving the majority in the middle without much tension or action. Yet I still found myself gripped by the story, especially with Claire and Sydney's revelations about their lives, and the love story between Claire and Tyler.

There are several subplots as well, including Sydney's first boyfriend Hunter John, who is now married to Emma, a well-to-do woman of whom was once Sydney's high school friend.

Emma is in constant fear of losing her husband to the returning Sydney, and while this secondary story could have taken some predictable turns, it was handled as a sweet catharsis shared between the husband and wife. They discover their true feelings for each other they had kept hidden for so many years.

"Sweet" is a good word to describe this novel. Much like the plants grown in the Waverly garden, it is a story about healing wounds and growing from experiences rather than withering under the hardships. My only issue is the book takes very few risks; it plays it safe most of the time and doesn't give the reader anything edgy or striking to make it very memorable. But I would recommend it for anyone who likes a tenderhearted tale of family and friends, or who wants a book that will make them feel like there is still a little bit of magic left in the world that can be found right in one's own backyard.

Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it.