Page count: 327 pages
Rating: 5 stars
Date begun: December 16th, 2009
Date finished: December 17th, 2009
Everyone in Bascom, North Carolina, knows there is something special about the Waverley women. The flowers in their walled garden blossom all year round, and if you eat an apple from the tree that grows there, you will see the biggest event of your life (this event could be good, or it could be hauntingly bad). Claire Waverley has lived alone in the big Waverley house since her grandmother died years earlier, shortly after her little sister Sidney ran off to New York. Claire runs a catering business specializing in edible flowers from her unique garden, and is much sought-after because of the little touch of magic the dishes contain. Claire's life of routine and predictability is suddenly turned on its head when in short order, a handsome stranger moves in next door, ivy creeps into her garden - and Sidney, with her five-year-old daughter Bey in tow - turns up on her doorstep with nowhere to go.
Sidney never enjoyed her legacy as one of the special Waverley women, and like her mother, never really felt she belonged in Bascom. Despite always being able to tell who a person truly is by the way they wear their hair, Sidney does not feel she has any of her family's abilities, and like her mother before her, tried to run away from the little town. She became trapped in a brutal and abusive relationship, where the only good thing she gained was her little girl. After several years of terror and abuse, she finally manages to flee her monstrous boyfriend and escapes to the only place she thinks she'll be safe. Her daughter Bey is a stoic and serious child, who always knows where things belong. She loves her mother, and comes to adore her new home in the big house with the fascinating garden.
Claire is not interested in a relationship with her neighbour, who despite all of Claire's culinary attempts to disuade him insists on still trying to court her. She is both glad and upset that her sister has returned after so long, but is also constantly terrified that Sidney and Bey will leave again. Sidney has to get used to living in the town she never felt she belonged in before, and meeting her old friends, most whom now shun her. She needs to learn to trust that the people around her won't hurt her or Bey, and that there are men out there who are not monsters.
Garden Spells is a book that features magical realism, and does it well. It never gets too kooky or twee. It reminded me of Joanne Harris' Chocolat and Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (the book, NOT the awful film with Sandra Bullock, Nicole Kidman and that guy who replaced George Clooney as the hot one on ER). Both Practical Magic and Garden Spells feature two very different sisters with unusual abilities, at least one of whom is afraid of long-term commitment. Like Chocolat, this book features a woman who can do magical and remarkable things with the food she serves people, and whose presence in town changes the lives of those around her.
Garden Spells is a book about love. It features romance, but also the love between sisters, mother and child, and the close affections of true friendship. It's a sweet and uplifting book, which wouldn't have worked if it didn't also have some darkness in parts of the story. It celebrates the love of good food, of companionship and the need to find a place to belong. This novel is Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, and based on her first book, I would very much be willing to read other books she writes, as well.