Back in January, a friend of mine from work chose Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells as her “staff pick” of the month — and I immediately asked her what she loved about it. One of the greatest things about working at a bookstore (other than the grossly insignificant compensation, condescending customers and long hours, of course) is the opportunity to endlessly discuss my most favorite of all things — books! And Garden Spells came very highly recommended.
If you’d asked me a year ago if I’m much of a “fantasy” reader, I probably would have wrinkled my nose at you. In the past year, though, I’ve joined the legions of astute readers who have discovered the world of Harry Potter, Stephenie’s Meyer’s Twilight series and, now, Allen’s whimsical trees and edibles in Garden Spells. And this book is, for lack of a more precise word, very charming.
I dove headfirst into the storyline, which follows sisters Claire and Sydney Waverley as they struggle to reconnect after ten years apart. The Waverleys are infamous in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina for being “different” — and from their heritage in a long line of “different” Waverleys. Familial ties are very strong in Bascom and each member of the family is expected to carry on their traditions — be it helping the ill, giving “gifts” to this in need or, well, marrying an older spouse.
My description is wholly lacking, of course. This really the story of Sydney and Claire finding each other again — and learning to love and trust each other again. The girls were raised in Bascom by their maternal grandmother after their mother’s unexpected departure, leaving them to alternately embrace or defy their familial expectations. Claire embraces the “magic” that seems to center around the family — she and her grandmother’s abilities to create delicious meals laced with materials to affect the eater in the desired way.
Sydney, however, can’t wait to get out of town and forget being a “Waverley” — she despises all of the long glances her way and the expectations and ridicule. After the end of an unfortunate relationship as a teenager, Sydney leaves North Carolina and changes her name to follow the free-spirited path of their ill-fated mother — she roams the country, looking for someone to love. And somewhere to really belong.
And she does find someone — just not who she expected. She welcomes her daughter Bay into the world and, after a dangerous situation puts both she and her daughter at risk, Sydney comes “home” to Claire after a ten-year silence between them.
Claire has stayed on in the Waverley home in Bascom to open her own catering business, which becomes very successful. She’s content with her routines and the order of her daily life, taking solace and comfort in her one-ness — depending on no one. After her grandmother dies, she retreats even further into herself; she believes that everyone leaves her (and, given the past, this is pretty much true). Sealing herself off and becoming an island, Claire literally seems to forget how to care about anyone else.
The presence of Sydney and Bay shatters her peaceful island, of course. While initially apprehensive of their arrival out of the blue, Claire comes to embrace them both completely — and Sydney learns how to pick up the pieces of both her damaged self-worth and autonomy.
That’s just the synopsis, of course. And a long one at that!
What I really loved about this book was how clearly I felt the connection between all of the many-faceted characters of the novel — and they were all quite unforgettable. Claire and Sydney are beautiful, kind-hearted but ultimately quite flawed women, and I adored young Bay, who’s just beginning to learn what it means to be a Waverley. Spirited relative Evanelle — whose “gift” is to compulsively deliver items the recipient will need sometime in the future, kind of like a sign — was delightful and added quite a bit of light-heartedness to the plot.
No character in the book seemed to be thrown into the story — everyone had a purpose, and everyone had a place. The men who enter the Waverleys’ lives carry with them certain responsibilities and have certain gifts of their own, though not magical in nature. The Waverleys are all taught what it means to trust, to let go of the past, and to embrace one another for both their differences and their similarities.
I’m sure that’s pretty trite, but that’s probably because it’s true!
The “magical” element of Garden Spells was done so well, I hardly noticed it. The transitions between scenes were seamless, and the abilities of Claire and Sydney didn’t seem strange to me. Even the apple-tossing magical tree — a character all its own — didn’t strike me as odd.
I really enjoyed the novel, and found myself skimming ahead as I reached the final 50 pages — I was so desperate to know what was going to happen. The only downfall of the book, in my opinion, was the ending — as we waited and waited and waited for something in particular to happen (no spoilers here!), when it finally did, the whole messy scene was over and done with in a matter of pages. It felt wholly anticlimatic — as did another revelation involving the progression of Claire’s relationship in the final few pages. While I still loved the story, I felt like someone had popped my little balloon as I reached the conclusion.
4.25 out of 5!