August 17, 2010

Garden Spells: Review (Adult)

The Waverleys of Bascom, North Carolina, have always been rather mysterious. Claire has a gift for influencing emotions with her cookery, her cousin Evanelle somehow knows exactly what she needs to give a particular person, and the apple tree in the yard - well, it seems to have a mind of its own. When Claire's younger sister, Sydney, returns after a ten-year absence with her young daughter Bay in tow, it soon becomes apparent that the Waverley gift has been passed onto them as well. Each sister has struggled with her identity as a Waverley: Claire, not born in Bascom, yearns to belong, while Sydney has spent a large part of her life running from the Waverley reputation. That's not all she's running from now, though - her daughter's father is a vicious, abusive man who wants nothing more than make Sydney's life miserable. Gradually Sydney begins to relax, enjoying the stability she finds in her new life in Bascom and helping her sister open up and take risks to find happiness. But not everything's as simple as Sydney might like; her arrival has created waves in Bascom, ones that involve her first love Hunter John and her first friend Henry Hopkins. And the last man she ever wanted to see again is still trying to track her down...

I really don't know how to sum up Garden Spells. It was a breath of fresh air after some of the YA fantasy I've been reading - not that I haven't been enjoying those as well, but this was less traditional and formulaic, more like "magical realism." The element of the fantastical is dealt with so subtly, and yet it is so effective. I loved how the smallest little thing could change the course of events, be it a bizarre and seemingly useless gift from Evanelle which became extremely meaningful, dandelion petals Claire added to the salad encouraging loyalty from those who ate it, or Sydney's hairstyling ability altering the personality an individual projected. It felt as though if you just tried hard enough to believe that magic does exist in our world, this is what you would come up with. The magic makes sense.


This isn't a book you read for the plot, it's a book you read for the characters, the interpersonal interactions, and the world that Sarah Addison Allen has created. I immediately identified and sympathized with Claire (although I don't have a green thumb and I am terrible at cooking!) because her need to belong and her fear of being rejected or deserted are universal emotions. It took a bit longer for Sydney to grow on me, as I didn't agree with everything she'd done, but her loyalty to her sister and love for her daughter won me over. It was fantastic to see Sydney playing matchmaker between Claire and Tyler, and watching the sisters grow closer and share more together was a real treat. Bay's insights were mature for her age in some ways, and it didn't feel out of place, because in other ways it was clear she was still very much a child. Tyler was also a wonderful character, well-suited to Claire because he was so persistent (and immune to her magical cooking) and a genuinely considerate guy.

I do wish we'd seen some more of Henry - he's not introduced until about halfway through and we don't get as much from his viewpoint as I would have liked. (Minor spoilers here, I suppose.) Because I didn't have a clear picture of his personality (apart from the fact he always really liked Sydney) their relationship felt a bit forced, as though the author felt that because Claire was ending up with someone, Sydney had to as well. Considering the relationship, if you could call it that, that Sydney had just gotten out of, I don't know that she needed to be jumping into one again so soon. Plus, the fact that Henry was her first close friend ever and now, years later, they were romantically involved, seemed a tad unrealistic.

Also, some of the other side characters - Hunter John, Fred, James, Steve - could have used a bit more fleshing out, as they didn't feel nearly as real to me as Claire, Sydney, Bay, and Tyler. David was well-portrayed as a controlling, abusive man who took pleasure from frightening and hurting Sydney. However, it would have been interesting psychologically to know how he got to this point. 

Another small quibble I had was that Tyler, an outsider, doesn't have a stronger reaction to the revelation that Claire has magical talents. He is told that she's trying to influence him with her cooking, and we don't really see what he thinks about this (but he continues to pursue her, without asking any questions.) Wouldn't he be curious?


Like I mentioned before, this book isn't about an exciting storyline. It doesn't need to be. That said, I found that the ending fell a bit short of my hopes, being somewhat anticlimactic (and triumphing over the 'bad guy' too easily and unconvincingly.) Also, I never fully understood why the Waverleys were considered to be "below" of many other Bascom families. Was it because they were not wealthy, or because they had magic? Most people in town knew about their special abilities (or at least knew of the rumours) and didn't seem especially troubled by it, so I don't think it could be that. Claire ran a cooking business that marketed her magic after all!

Writing style:

Sarah Addison Allen's writing style is phenomenal. Her imagery is evocative, bringing her characters and setting to life. Some of the descriptions are amazing, so creative and yet managing to communicate exactly what she means to the reader. Perhaps she is a little simile- and metaphor-happy, but they are wonderful! I especially loved how alive and personal she made the apple tree, giving it emotions and motives like anybody else in the story. The author has mentioned that she draws on fairy tales for her books, and that's a bit what it felt like to read Garden Spells - the same storytelling language that almost sounds like a poem. My description of her writing style isn't really good enough to convey it properly, so I've pulled out a few quotes:

"That morning, when Claire woke up in the backyard garden, she tasted regret in her mouth. With a frown, she spit it out."

"She'd kissed many men who wanted her, but it had been a long time since she'd kissed one who loved her. She'd forgotten. She'd forgotten that love made anything possible."

"They wanted roses tonight to represent their love, but when you added sadness to love it caused regret. They wanted nutmeg because it represented their wealth, but when you added guilt to wealth it caused embarassment."

It isn't the sort of book you need to read all in one setting; indeed, I think if you did the writing style and tone might lose some of its impact and begin to seem repetitive. Because it's not plot-based, though, when you do return to it after a break it's easy to pick back up where you left off without having too much difficulty remembering what's happened.

The addition in the back of the book of the meanings of some of Claire's garden ingredients was a great touch! I loved that aspect of the magic in the story so it was nice to have a glossary for it.

Overall verdict: 4.5 out of 5 shooting stars. Read if you like romance, magic, sisters, and most importantly, characters figuring out how to be happy. (If you are after a gripping non-stop action read, though, this is not the book you're looking for.)

 Note: this is an adult book, and it does have some sexual and violent content.

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I thought her writing style was pretty awesome. I think it compensated for the lack of character development. Though, I also think that minor characters aren't meant to be developed too much because it takes away from the plot.


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