Saturday, April 21, 2012

Book Review: Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen -- ★★★½

Source and Source
My reading habits have really increased since I had my second daughter.  I'm not really sure what happened between college and then, but I think I got caught up in the snobbery of literature which caused me to turn my nose up at all pop culture fiction and stick to the classics (whether cult or traditional). So I spent most of my limited reading time after college rereading the likes of Jane Austen and Henry James, while introducing myself to Jack Keroac, Charles Bukowski and the magical poems of Sharon Olds.  Contemporary fiction was lost on me.

It was lost, that is, until I became pregnant with my second daughter. I was at Costco one day and picked up one of the books teetering on top of one massive pile and decided to buy it. I was hooked on mainstream fiction. Needless to say, that entire pregnancy was filled with many trips to the bookstore. 

Shortly after she was born, we started going to the library (for both an attempt at fiscal responsibility and to fill our day with an activity). It was great. I would come home with a pile of books and read my way through them every night. The only problem with the library is that new books are hard to get your hands on, sometimes with a wait list of over 100 on 3 measly copies. Since I never really was one to care about what year a book was published in, I started searching old New York Times bestsellers list to get names of books to read. It worked like a charm! I still do it. The books are almost always on the shelf, so I don't have to wait months to read a book; I've got the whole library at my disposal! 

Yes, there are usually some not-so-great books mixed in with my pile every week (like Water for Elephants, ugh). One of the books I recently picked up, Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison Allen, was from the October 2007 New York Times Bestseller's List. I'm not sure what made me pick this one up considering the synopsis read: Two sisters overcome their differences and claim their heritage when one returns to their North Carolina home.

This sort of description isn't normally something that would necessarily attract me and the inside flap summary didn't really offer any additional help with words like "enchanted" and "mystical plants." But I checked it out anyway. It was the last of a bunch that I chose to read. I started it, thinking that I was probably going to put it down after the first few pages and not pick it up again. By page 88, I had to force myself to go to sleep. The next night I finished it with ease. There was something so intriguing about it, something that for the first time in my life could actually be accurately summed up with "Je ne sais quoi."  


Claire Waverly lives in the home her grandmother left her and tends to her garden. She is one of two sisters from a small town in North Carolina where the Waverlys have the reputation of being rather odd. Haunted my memories of her wild-oats seeding mother, Claire lives a quiet life alone, working as a caterer.

Her work involves much more than preparing food though. The garden she spends most of her time tending, helps her produce combinations of food that can provoke different emotions, actions and visions. People call on her to help make children more thoughtful with cupcakes topped with candied pansies or dandelion petals in a fruit salad to evoke regret in an enemy. The apple tree in her backyard seems to have a mind of its own and has been known to give visions to those who eat its fruit.

Her distant cousin Evanelle lives in the same town and has the uncanny habit of walking up to people and giving them things -- coins, shirts, spoons. She has no idea why; she simply feels the urge to give people things that unbelievably, they end up needing in the days to come.

Claire's life is suddenly trespassed with the arrival of her sister and her young daughter, as well as her new neighbor, Tyler. Both sisters find themselves struggling with the past as they both search for a bond to unite their futures.


I had never heard of the genre magical realism. I'm not really one for vampire books or anything that borders on the unrealistic where people have the ability to cast spells (although I do love my dystopian young adult fiction).  Magical realism, though (I have learned) "... uses magical elements as real occurrences, presented in a straightforward manner that places the 'real' and the 'fantastic' in the same stream of thought." 

Yep, that's what this book did. It's almost hard to notice as you're reading along. Everything seems normal, but then something pops into a sentence that makes you reread it and you realize the author is presenting and accepting the idea of magic as if it's a natural occurrence. For instance:
He stood and ran back toward the house, a faint purple light trailing behind him like the tail of a comet. 
From his bedroom window, Lester watched his grandson run. All Hopkins men were like that. Lester had been like that. It was a common misconception that being old meant you couldn't feel passion. They all felt passion. They all had run that same stretch of field. Long ago, when Lester first met his wife, he set trees on fire by just standing under them at night.
Since this is my first time reading a book from the magical realism genre, I don't know if this is universally true for the entire genre, but what appeals to me is the imagery of magic. It's about describing a normal activity like running, but attributing something not common at all to running, like a purple light trailing you the distance of a run.  A tree that throws apples when mad seems silly and childish, but describing a tree as the center of a garden who uses its fruits and limbs to protect a family for a generation sets a much different tone. 

Plainly put: This story isn't about two sisters perched in front of a spell book, hexing everyone who rubs them the wrong way. It's a story that encompasses strong characters and a plot thick with the every day emotion -- love, family bonds, jealousy and heartbreak. What makes it unique is the way the story is told. It's bursting with vividness and herbal lore and I guess, simply put,  it is the essence of a modern day fariytale.

Verdict: Absolutely Recommend
Rating: ✭✭✭½


  1. Absolutely recommend all of Sarah Allen Addison's books! Great review!

  2. This one has been on my list of books I want to read some day for YEARS also. You made me want to upgrade it's status....thanks!

    I'm going to order the audio book right now.


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