Sarah Addison Allen's debut novel, Garden Spells, is the perfect example of one of those books I would never have picked up were it not for the recommendation of another excellent blogger. In this case it came from my good friend Michelle over at See Michelle Read. One of her favorite reads, she suggested I would like it and was she ever right. I'd seen it around several times and all I knew was that it was a New York Times bestseller. I couldn't really work out what genre it was and I sort of mentally sorted it into the The Secret Life of Bees category and left it there. Not that I didn't enjoy The Secret Life of Bees. But I've never had the urge to reread it, you know? But Garden Spells shares only a rather charming Carolina setting (North as opposed to South) with Sue Monk Kidd's novel. Beyond that, it is entirely its own work.
Claire Waverly is a creature of habit. She gets up. She goes about her work, making deliveries, catering events. She gardens. She visits with her friend and distant relation Evanelle. She goes to bed. She gets up and does it all again. Living alone doesn't bother Claire because it's safe and uncomplicated. She can control every aspect of her carefully regimented life and she can avoid getting more involved in anyone else's life than she'd like. When every last person in her life left, Claire determined she would never let herself count on anyone too much. Content with her eccentric reputation as a solitary soul and a mysterious Waverly, she looks ahead to a future free of complication. That is until her new neighbor, an art professor at the local college, moves in and insists on getting to know her, even bringing back a boxful of apples from her tree, which had fallen on his side of the fence. It's all Claire can do to avoid his overtures and ensure that whatever he does, he doesn't eat one of those apples. The apple tree in the Waverly yard is local legend and, though she herself has no use for the recalcitrant tree, she takes her job as its caretaker rather seriously. Then her estranged sister Sydney shows up with her five-year-old daughter Bay in tow and Claire is once more forced to realign the shape of her days to accommodate two more people who clearly need her. Little does she know what kind of darkness is hounding her sister's trail.
I loved this book. I loved the heady descriptions of baking and gardening and the many unexpected intersections between the two art forms. I loved Claire and how hard it was for her to change, to reach out to anyone at all. I loved Sydney and her heartbreaking determination to take care of her daughter despite the ragged mess she'd made of her life. And I loved Tyler and Henry and Evanelle and Fred and every other beautiful, crazy inhabitant of Bascom, North Carolina. This is a very simple, very sweet story that simultaneously falls under the categories of magical realism, fairy tales, and contemporary fiction. I've not read much like it before and I finished it utterly enchanted and looking for more. I think one of the reasons I was so delighted with the story was it reminded me of my father's side of the family. The way they spoke, the way they interacted, the way family trumped everything else. So I spent the majority of the read in a happy, nostalgic daze. If you're looking for a perfectly charming read filled with sympathetic characters, sprinkled with a couple of endearing romances, and wrapped in a hint of magic and longing, then this is the book for you.