The women of the Waverley family -- whether they like it or not -- are heirs to an unusual legacy, one that grows in a fenced plot behind their Queen Anne home on Pendland Street in Bascom, North Carolina. There, an apple tree bearing fruit of magical properties looms over a garden filled with herbs and edible flowers that possess the power to affect in curious ways anyone who eats them.
For nearly a decade, 34-year-old Claire Waverley, at peace with her family inheritance, has lived in the house alone, embracing the spirit of the grandmother who raised her, ruing her mother's unfortunate destiny and seemingly unconcerned about the fate of her rebellious sister, Sydney, who freed herself long ago from their small town's constraints. Using her grandmother's mystical culinary traditions, Claire has built a successful catering business -- and a carefully controlled, utterly predictable life -- upon the family's peculiar gift for making life-altering delicacies: lilac jelly to engender humility, for instance, or rose geranium wine to call up fond memories. Garden Spells reveals what happens when Sydney returns to Bascom with her young daughter, turning Claire's routine existence upside down. With Sydney's homecoming, the magic that the quiet caterer has measured into recipes to shape the thoughts and moods of others begins to influence Claire's own emotions in terrifying and delightful ways.
As the sisters reconnect and learn to support one another, each finds romance where she least expects it, while Sydney's child, Bay, discovers both the safe home she has longed for and her own surprising gifts. With the help of their elderly cousin Evanelle, endowed with her own uncanny skills, the Waverley women redeem the past, embrace the present, and take a joyful leap into the future.
When reading through reviews of Allen’s Garden Spells, I couldn’t help but notice how frequently the word “enchanting” was used to describe the book. Now that I’ve read it myself I have to admit that I can’t think of another adjective that fits the book so well. Delightful is also good one. And magical. But definitely enchanting.
In lyrical prose, Allen paints a picture of a unique town in which each of the founding families is known to posses particular characteristics, passed down through the generations. The Hopkin boys are old at heart and therefore always marry older women. The Clark women are known for their skills in satisfying their men and therefore they always marry well. But the Waverly family is seen as being particularly odd due to the almost magical skill that each family member possesses. Claire is able to manipulate people’s emotions through the use of the herbs in her special garden. Claire’s aunt Evanelle is constantly gifting people with items that they will soon find that they need. And everyone knows that one bite from an apple from the Waverly’s tree will give them a vision of the most important event of their lives.
Despite their strange reputation Claire is proud to be a Waverly. After an unstable childhood with an irresponsible mother, Claire now she clings to the safety and reliability of her current life. Claire has even found a way to profit from her unique skills and her catering business is particularly popular with those who know what her cooking can do.
- Business was doing well, because all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tea cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms, and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would notice only the beauty of your home and never the flaws. 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.
But Claire’s solitary existence is disturbed by the arrival of her sister, Sydney, who had left home straight after high-school and has not been back since. Unlike Claire, Sydney’s only desire was to escape the small town she grew up in and shed the Waverly name. But the responsibilities of motherhood and the danger of an abusive relationship force Sydney to return to the only home she has ever known, and to a sister she never really got to know.
Meanwhile, the new next-door neighbor is determined to integrate himself into Claire’s life despite Claire’s reluctance to let anyone get close to her. And an old friend from the past may help Sydney begin to heal from some of the hurts of her past.
Garden Spells was a charming and engaging story that I very much enjoyed. I love reading about characters that have unusual quirks, and this book was full of them. Even the apple tree has a personality of its own, throwing its apples at people, tempting them to take a bite. And while I usually find these magical realism books unsatisfying in how they integrate the magic into the story, Allen wove it all together into a seamless and enchanting (there it is again) tale that had me throughly captivated.
While a bit of darkness does slip in, overall Garden Spells is a lighthearted story of relationships, romance and identity that would make a great summer read. This was my first sample of Allen’s writing and I can’t wait to try some more.