I’ve been wanting to read Sarah Addison Allen’s books for some time now; her covers just exude subtle magic and mellow moods, and Garden Spells fits that image well. Although the issues discussed in the book were somber, the characters’ earnest conversations and attitudes gave this story an optimistic, rose-colored glasses feel. And despite taking some time to get used to Allen’s narrative style and grumbling about the characters occasionally being overly optimistic or fake (that’s the skeptic in me), I think that the heart-warming scenes and the hot romance make Garden Spells worthy of being a cozy-under-the-covers-read for a cold winter night.
She was a Waverley, and Waverleys were an odd bunch, each in his or her own way... Just like Runions were talkers, and Plemmons were shifty, and Hopkins men always married older women.
In the small town of Bascom, North Carolina, every family has their own quirks and traditions. Thirty-four-year-old Claire’s Waverly bloodline allows her to tend to the magical garden that her grandmother left for her; she uses the plants in her recipes to influence a guest’s thoughts and emotions, making her catering services popular among the people of Bascom. Claire loves being a Waverley, because her “oddness” means that she doesn’t need to get close to anybody... but that all changes when a new art professor, Tyler Hughes, moves in next to her and keeps trying to get to know her better. And when her younger sister, Sydney, comes back home with her daughter Bay after leaving Bascom ten years ago, Claire’s steady routine is knocked off course as she tries to accommodate for all these new people in her life. Both Waverly sisters are holding secrets from each other, and only time – and some help from the magic garden – will reveal their truths and heal their wounds.
Few pages into Garden Spells, and I had a dreadful feeling that I wouldn’t like it. The third-person narrative that Allen uses is similar to a recent read (more actions and straightforward thoughts than introspection) that had me feeling a disconnect with Claire and the other characters. However, the characters’ interactions with each other really bring out their individual personalities and emotions, and Allen allots several pages for every character to have their time in the spotlight so that their thoughts about themselves and others are acknowledged. I got a chance to see the story from Claire’s perspective, then Tyler’s, then Sydney’s, and so on, so despite the lack of a complete connection with the characters, I could still understand why they’re feeling a certain way or acting in a certain manner.
However, I must admit to being a little skeptical about the mold-fitting characters; the premise that every family has set traditions really restrains the characters’ abilities to think outside of the box. For example, the Clark women are “good in bed”, so they’re always trying to act sexy and like man eaters and worrying about satisfying their hubbies; and likewise, Claire tries so hard to fit the Waverly mold. They do eventually break out of these molds, but for parts of the book, I felt that the characters were a bit shallow and fake in how they approach situations.
But the romance in the story made up for it. Sexual tension is hot for a reason, guys. I especially like Claire and Tyler’s relationship, even though it reads kind of like a one-sided insta-love.
Two more bites and he’d cleaned his plate.
She looked at him expectantly. “Did you like it? How do you feel?”
He met her eyes, and she almost fell off her stool from the force of his desire. It was like a hard gust of autumn wind that blew fallen leaves around so fast they could cut you. Desire was dangerous to thin-skinned people. “Like I want to ask you on a date.”
Claire sighed and her shoulders dropped. “Damn.”
“There’s music on the quad at Orion every Saturday night in the summer. Come with me this Saturday.”
“No, I’ll be busy.”
“Making you another casserole.”
In addition to the romance, part of the beauty of Garden Spells is the mix of magic into everything. Add in some magic and food, and everything is better. There’s a Waverly Kitchen Journal at the end of the book that explains the magical properties of each garden plant, but the in-text prose is just too beautiful to pass up:
Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. Honeysuckle wine served on the Fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. The nutty flavor of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing that something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not.
Plot-wise, Garden Spells is an example of how slow and steady wins the race. There’s conflict, there’s hurt, there’s conciliation... there’s loneliness and abuse and a need to make everything better. There’s nothing exciting and giddy about the story, but it’s such a pleasure to see how the characters and their relationships change throughout the story. BUT just be aware that there are definitely themes and imagery in this book that aren’t suited for a younger audience, so consider yourself warned!
Garden Spells felt like drinking a cup of hot chocolate: got a bit scorched at the beginning, felt annoyed, but then the warmth seeped through my skin and my heart to spread more mellowness and fulfillment with each sip. This one is for those of you who like to read about relationships, whether it be between friends, romantic partners, or family members.