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Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 36.
- Review Date: 2007-06-18
- Reviewer: Staff
Two gifted sisters draw on their talents to belatedly forge a bond and find their ways in life in Allen’s easygoing debut novel. Thirty-four-year-old Claire Waverley manifests her talent in cooking; using edible flowers, Claire creates dishes that “affect the eater in curious ways.” But not all Waverley women embrace their gifts; some, including Claire’s mother, escape the family’s eccentric reputation by running away. She abandoned Claire and her sister when they were young. Consequently, Claire has remained close to home, unwilling to open up to new people or experiences. Claire’s younger sister, Sydney, however, followed in their mother’s footsteps 10 years ago and left for New York, and after a string of abusive, roustabout boyfriends, returns to Bascom, N.C., with her five-year-old daughter, Bay. As Sydney reacquaints herself with old friends and rivals, she discovers her own Waverley magic. Claire, in turn, begins to open up to her sister and in the process learns how to welcome other possibilities. Though Allen’s prose can lean toward the pedestrian and the romance subplots feel perfunctory, the blending of horticultural folklore, the supernatural and a big dollop of Southern flavor should find favor with a wide swath of readers. (Aug.)
A tale of two sisters
For readers hopelessly smitten by Southern writers, North Carolina native Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells should arrive with a gentle warning: Proceed with cautiononce you start reading, this book is impossible to put down.
To be sure, Allen's literary debut is a magical novel, nearly perfect in capturing the imperfections that define a shattered family. For sisters Claire and Sydney Waverly, an unplanned reunion born of desperation, not fondness, means tiptoeing around the shards of a painful shared history in their grandmother's stately Queen Anne home. Abandoned as children by a mother whose favorite pastimes included shoplifting and bad men, the girls have inherited the family home and, above all, a mystical garden that is both feared and revered by the Waverlys' neighbors in Bascom, North Carolina. Indeed, a temperamental apple tree with prophetic powers is one of Allen's delicately drawn and pluckily poignant "characters," as is the new next-door neighbor. The son of hippie parents who dreams of an old-fashioned romance with roots, art professor Tyler falls madly in love with Clairea caterer with a cautious heart, who pours her passion into myriad secret recipes for lavender bread, dandelion quiche and geranium wine. Ruminating over recipes run amok, Claire laments, "It turned out to be a disastrous meal, passion and impatience and resentment clashing like three winds coming from different directions and meeting in the middle of the table. The butter melted. The bread toasted itself. Water glasses overturned."
As Garden Spells unfolds, yielding rapturous, poetic storytelling, Claire and Sydney begin to make peace with their past to create something that eluded thema perfect childhoodfor Bay, Sydney's 5-year-old daughter. Of course, real-life rifts are never simple to mend, and Allen wields her literary needle and thread with a wisdom that bellies her status as a first-time novelist. Readers will rejoice over their discovery of this immensely talented young writer, savoring the last few pages of Allen's enchanting novel, which linger like a song in your head, long after you've reached the end.