This year, January has turned out to be a more than usually lean month. Garden Spells, however, was a book I simply had to have – it would be my one extravagance, my one post-Christmas treat. I discovered it quite by chance, while researching another book online, and immediately had a good feeling about it. Instincts like that should not be fought, so I lost no time in ordering it over the internet. As I waited impatiently for it to arrive, I had to keep reminding myself that first impressions are often deceptive, and that I might well be disappointed when at last I got to read it. But deep down, I didn’t really believe that was going to be the case – and I was right.
Sarah Addison Allen’s debut novel takes us to Bascom, North Carolina, where generations of Waverleys have lived in the large Queen Anne house on Pendland Street. The Waverleys have always had a reputation for being odd, and thirty-four-year-old Claire Waverley, who inherited the gracious family home from her grandmother, is no exception. If her catering business is so successful, it is largely due to the magical properties of the plants she cultivates by moonlight in the great enclosed garden behind the house, the door of which she keeps carefully locked: Claire knows that rose geranium wine brings back happy memories, that lavender baked into cookies gives people the ability to keep secrets, and that to discourage a man’s unwelcome attentions, she must add snapdragon seeds to his evening meal. In luscious, evocative prose, Allen brings to life a Southern white witch and a cast of quirky, endearing attendant characters, and conjures up a world of herb lore and fragrant steam-filled kitchens which I find irresistible.
When the ancient, fractious apple tree at the bottom of the garden (whose fruit gives prophetic dreams to those unwise enough to eat it) starts throwing its apples at people with more than usual peevishness, Claire has a premonition that her quiet, well-ordered life is about to be turned topsy-turvy. And sure enough, who should turn up on her doorstep one day but her younger sister Sydney, who ran away from Bascom ten years earlier and hasn’t been heard of since.
On the run from the worst in a long series of bad relationships, Sydney has brought along with her an uncannily clear-sighted little daughter and a whole cartload of explosive secrets which soon shake the town out of its torpor and set it buzzing with gossip. Allen deftly re-works the well-known theme of two estranged sisters who are unexpectedly brought together again: during a summer of enforced cohabitation, old tensions and long-buried rivalries are revived, as each sister is made to re-examine her life in the light of the other’s choices. Sydney’s contemptuous pity for the safe, uneventful, small-town lifestyle Claire has embraced is matched by the accusations of irresponsibility and wasted opportunities Claire levels at the unstable, nomadic, hand-to-mouth existence Sydney has led since she left at the age of eighteen.
Though the plot is predictable – down to the final confrontation and ensuing happy end – this does not detract in the least from the enjoyment of the novel. From the beginning, the reader is aware that he has entered a fairy-tale realm of wish-fulfillment and that the enchantment cast by the Waverley garden will triumph over all menace. Ultimately, the apple tree protects its children, sisterly bonds are strengthened, ghosts are laid to rest, and true love is found. I read Garden Spells in one delicious gulp – the smell of fresh-baked croissants just out from the oven was wafting over from the bakery across the courtyard as I finished the last chapter with a sigh of pure contentment at four thirty in the morning, and at that moment, I felt (to quote Danny Kaye a.k.a the Court Jester) that “life couldn’t possibly, not even probably, better be!”
© Florence Berlioz 2011