Sunday, 29 May 2011

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

I must confess this is not my usual sort of book. If it had been two or three years ago I probably would have run a country mile from anything that looked so girly and twee. But after hearing a few good things about Sarah Addison Allen's first book, and finding myself in the mood for a bit of a fairytale I popped it in my basket and clicked 'buy'.

Bascom, North Carolina is a small southern town where the local families are steeped in mystery and legend. And no family more so then the Waverleys, whose seemingly magical home and garden seems to breathe with a life of it's own. Claire Waverley had a rather unorthodox childhood, hopping from state to state with her wild child mother, she never felt like she belonged anywhere. Then when her mother falls pregnant again with Sydney she finally heads home to Bascom and the Waverley home where Claire's grandmother takes them in and teaches Claire the magic of the Waverley garden. Now all grown up Claire runs a catering business out of her home, using the secrets her now passed Grandmother taught her. Sydney, taking after her mother and running away at 18, is now trapped in an abusive relationship and has spent the last 3 years amassing enough money so her and her 5 year old daughter, Bay, can escape. And she plans to head home to Bascom, the only safe place she can think of. But Claire likes her ordered quiet life and she is not ready to start letting people in, least of all her new neighbor Tyler who, it seems, has fallen hard for Claire.

I really took to this book to begin with, the wonderful little southern town setting immediately sucked me in with it's colourful characters, wonderful smells and balmy weather. And (as a massive foodie) I loved all of Claire's references to the herbs and flowers she used in her cooking and the effects they have. Especially when she starts using her skill to try and discourage Tyler's romanic feelings towards her, with little experience of that sort of thing needless to say her attempts never quite work out how she would like.

"Two more bites and he'd cleaned his plate.
She looked at him expectantly. 'Did you like it? How do you feel?'
He met her eyes, and she almost feel off her stool from the force of his desire. It was like a hard gust of autumn wind that blew fallen leaves around so fast they could cut you. Desire was dangerous to thin-skinned people.
'Like I want to ask you out on date'
Claire sighed and her shoulders dropped.

On the flipside to Claire's amusing boy antics, Sydney's homecoming isn't quite a joyous affair when her old school friend Emma does everything she can to socially snub Sydney, terrified she's got designs on her husband Hunter John (and Sydney's old high school boyfriend). Sydney of course is more worried that Bay's father will turn up any moment to drag her and Bay back into a life of misery and abuse. Not exactly fun times. That said I actually really liked following Sydney, her optimism and enthusiasm never seemed forced or insincere despite the huge fear she's hiding from everyone. 

It turns out all the Waverley women have their talent. Sydney's is hair, she can cut you the perfect do and afterwards your luck will skyrocket. Bay has already embraced her gift of knowing exactly where everything belongs. Not just cutlery and towels either, she can tell immediately that Tyler belongs with Claire, not that Claire listens. My favorite Waverley has to be Evanelle though. A distant cousin and an old lady with a wicked taste for ogling young men's behinds. Her talent is giving items someone will need. She never knows what they will need them for, or even when. But if Evanelle gives you something you know that it'll be essential at some point. 

"Fred found himself laughing. 
'Even in 1953 giving someone condoms wasn't so bad, was it?'

'It wasn't the what, it was the who. I told Luanna that I had something to give her in church the next day. I was trying to do it private. She was with her friends and said, real uppity-like, "Well give it to me, Evanelle" Like it was her due. You know Clarks and Waverleys have never gotten along. Anyway, I gave them to her, right there in front of her friends. Oh, I'm leaving out the most important part. Luanna's husband lost his private parts in the war. My name was Mud, but it got even worse when Luanna got preganant a year later. She should have used those condoms.'"

She's a no nonsense old lady with a dirty mind and masses of compassion and therefore the character I enjoyed following the most. Especially towards the last half of the book where I started to find the main story was being pushed along to it's conclusion as swiftly as possible. I didn't really enjoy the last few chapters because it was like Addison Allen had an idea of where she wanted all her characters to be at by the final page but couldn't figure those extra 50-100 pages to get there in a way that felt natural (not really the right word for a book containing a magic apple tree I know) so at the end I did feel somewhat short changed by the "everything is now resolved in a few pages" type of ending. However I had enjoyed the story and the great characters so it felt like a small price to pay. A short but delightful book.