Reading Retrospection: Garden Spells

I don’t like to call the way I write about a book “a review” per se. Rather I like to think of it as a collection of thoughts, of likes and dislikes, and maybe an interpretation or two. “Review,” to me, seems to imply a deeper understanding, a more intricate delivery on why a book is good or isn’t. Reading Retrospection is just me gushing (or ranting) about a book, and telling you why in my very non-book-bloggery plain speak. 🙂

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Published by Bantam Books on August 28th, 2007
Genres/Categories: Adult, Contemporary, Fantasy, Food Magic, Magical Realism, Southern Fiction
Setting: Bascom, North Carolina, USA
Pages: 290, paperback

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In a garden surrounded by a tall fence, tucked away behind a small house in the smallest of towns, is an apple tree rumored to bear a very special sort of fruit. In this luminous debut novel, Sarah Addison Allen tells the story of that enchanted tree and the extraordinary people who tend it.

The Waverleys have always been a curious family, endowed with peculiar gifts that make them outsiders in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. Even their garden has a reputation. For the Waverley history is in the soil. And so are their futures.

A successful caterer, Claire Waverley prepares dishes made with her mystical plants–from the nasturtiums that aid in keeping secrets to the snapdragons intended to discourage the attentions of her amorous neighbor. Meanwhile, her elderly cousin Evanelle distributes unexpected presents whose uses become uncannily clear. They are the last of the Waverleys–except for Claire’s rebellious sister, Sydney, who fled Bascom the moment she could, abandoning Claire as their own mother had years before.

When Sydney suddenly returns home with a young daughter of her own, Claire’s quiet life is turned upside down. Together again in the house they grew up in, Sydney takes stock of all she left behind and Claire struggles to heal the wounds of the past. Soon the sisters realize they must deal with their common legacy–if they are ever to feel at home in Bascom… or with each other.

I loved this book. LOVED it. I want to tell everyone I meet that I know has ever picked up a book to read it, but I can’t explain quite why I think it’s so amazing, or even justify what makes me think anyone else will like it. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read. It’s not the most exciting, I don’t love the characters more than any others I’ve ever met or read about. However, the pages are absolutely gorged with all types and manner of Claire’s delicacies, pairings of flavors that had my creative mind whirring the entire time I was reading. Seldom could I go more than five pages without one of her dishes being mentioned or described, and it was fantastic. It doesn’t bog the story down, but adds a delicious layer to it (at least for me).

I felt a kinship with one of the (arguably THE) main characters Claire. Her introversion, her unusual cooking, her growing up in a small town with a southern mentality and oddball family members. Her fear of forming an intimate relationship, struggling not to want one when it’s so unavoidable that there are literal sparks thrown. If/when you read Garden Spells you’ll see what I’m talking about (and probably giggle like I did).

I ended up liking every character I was meant to like, and strongly disliked ones I was meant to dislike. My feelings of people even fluxuated based on their actions, depending on character flaws or strengths that were steadily revealed. Sarah Addison Allen’s character building I think is what really hooked me. It’s slow and subtle, creeping like kudzu across your heart and before you know it you’re in love with some feature about every single one of these stars.

There is magic. This family and the people they interact with seem so real, so normal, it makes their gifts seem equally as normal a thing. Magic goes on in their world. It is accepted by everyone they’ve grown up around, whether it’s talked about openly or not. It’s saturated the town and their lives, and I love it. I’ve dreamed for so long I would be given just a glimpse of magic in my everyday life, proof of existence, or at least an idea planted. This book is like that dream come to life. I was so easily able to completely immerse myself in the story, empathizing so fully that I had literal physical reactions to what I was reading (laughing, talking to the book, making faces – but I’m not crazy, honest!). And the gifts themselves? I don’t want to speak too much of them for fear of spoiling something, but of course I am most in love with Claire’s, her magical herbs and flowers and garden she feeds to people to enhance their lives (or hinder their less likable tendencies).

There is even a four-page index at the end of the book with all of Claire’s magical edibles, and their properties! I pretty much swooned in real life when I saw it (and maybe squeed, just a tad).

I hope I haven’t hyped this book up too much for anyone wanting to read it. It is truly a great experience to have, but I can’t say that it will hit anyone reading this post as hard as it hit me. There were just a lot of little things in it that resonated with me, with my actual life, and with my dreams of life. Allen just pushed a bunch of the right buttons for me. I think even if your experience with her words aren’t as profound, they will still sing you a song of a quiet southern town filled with magic and love and hope, where a dream of interpreted perfection can come real for those that move pieces around until they fit. Even with the fantasy elements I feel I took a good lesson away from reading Garden Spells, to love what I have in life and accept quirks, oddities, situations. And that no matter what kind of past experiences a person has been through there will always be people there for him or her, that won’t be going anywhere.

Rating:  4.5/5 starsstarrating4