Emily Benedict arrives in a small North Carolina town fresh on the grief train from her mother’s passing. Moving in with a grandfather she never knew — Vance Shelby, a real-life giant — becomes an unexpected adventure. Once her own mother’s home, Mullaby is full of interesting characters and tiny, inexplicable magical moments.
At the house next door, Julia Winterson has busied herself caring for a bustling restaurant business. After her father’s death years before, Julia returns to Mullaby — a place she fled decades ago — to take care of his business and debts before returning to Baltimore, where she’s steadfastly worked to build a new life. Julia gives herself two years to pay off her father’s debts, planning to sell his successful barbeque joint and run far away from a past that still haunts her. But Sawyer Anderson let her get away once — and he definitely isn’t planning on watching her flee again. Especially not if that means her delicious desserts — and their feelings — will disappear.
Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased The Moon, the third of her magical stand-alone novels, is a sweet if on-the-surface story of two women discovering details about the past as they struggle to move forward in the present. Once she arrives in Mullaby, Emily realizes the depth of the secrets her mother kept from her in life. And Julia has worked steadfastly to convince herself that she was never in love with Sawyer and that their shared history doesn’t matter, but it’s obvious to everyone — including the reader — that the well of her feelings runs deep.
While I read this novel quickly — it’s breezy — I have to admit that I expected more from the talented Ms. Allen. From the beginning, the more compelling narrative was Julia’s — and her memories, especially from high school, were buried beneath a less-interesting “mystery” surrounding the Coffeys, a well-to-do family with an unfortunate connection to the Shelbys. Of course, Emily doesn’t know anything about this when she meets Win Coffey, an attractive if broody young man who can’t seem to stay away from her — though he probably should.
Julia and Sawyer’s love story was, by far, the most fun and entertaining part of the novel. I loved their banter, though I ultimately found their back-story pretty thin. Most of what I “felt” while reading was just by interjecting my own emotions into the narrative, remembering first love and the pain of an eventual break-up. Without my own experiences, I feel like even the Sawyer-and-Julia moments would have fallen flat.
Though the book is short — less than 300 pages — I still found the pacing too slow. Secrets were revealed but very slowly, and I became intensely frustrated by Win’s cryptic responses to everything Emily asked . . . and the fact that we would wait many pages without any new tidbits of information. The evolution of their friendship felt a little contrived and unnatural to me, and I failed to see where their attraction stemmed from. I pictured Win as a Logan Huntzberger (for the “Gilmore Girls” fans) or a Chuck Bass (for my “Gossip Girls”), but Emily was just a wisp of a girl who never seemed to deal with the actual grief of losing her only parent. She seemed dull, confused and, honestly, uninteresting.
The town of Mullaby was interesting, but I never felt like I was actually there; the town was like a movie backdrop set up in the middle of the desert. I could see that I was supposed to be immersed in a scene, but my eye just kept wandering to the exposed periphery.
But as with her other novels, Allen’s strengths come in describing food. Like The Sugar Queen, one of my favorite books, the descriptions of desserts and sweets were intoxicating. Sawyer’s “sweet sense” was a really fun touch and added another magical element to the tale, which wasn’t nearly as focused on the inexplicable as her first two books.
Fans of contemporary or Southern fiction who appreciate tiny magical touches might enjoy Allen’s tale of family, love and redemption. Being a mighty fan of Allen’s from her Garden Spells days, I expected more from her latest novel, but readers new to her work shouldn’t hesitate to pick up some of her sweet stories. The Girl Who Chased The Moon didn’t earn a spot on my coveted favorites shelf, but it was still an enjoyable way to spend a weekend. And wow, I loved looking at that gorgeous cover!
3 out of 5!