Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Stops Short of Enchanting

Garden Spells

by Sarah Addison Allen

Published by Bantam

3 Out of 5 Stars

In Bascom, North Carolina, everyone is destined to live up to their family name. Clark women are lascivious femme fatales, Mattesons will be wealthy and put family duty first, Hopkins men always marry older women, and the females of the Waverley clan always manifest a quaint magical talent. Fate is heavy-handed in Bascom. There's no escaping your name and there's no escaping your heritage, even though Sydney Waverley, just like her mother before her, has tried.

Sydney grew up a Waverley, but didn't embrace the stigma associated with her name in the way her sister, Claire, did. Sydney's been everywhere, man, but her free spirit has finally been trapped by an abusive husband and her commitment to her 5 year old daughter. When Sydney finally musters the courage to escape, there's only one place for her to go--back to Bascom and a sister who despises her. When Sydney returns, she must confront the past, mend her relationship with Claire, and embrace what it means to be a Waverley--all the while knowing that trouble is most likely following her and could threaten the very lives of those she loves the most.

Garden Spells is a nice little book. Just awfully darn nice. Everything's beautiful and brimming with Southern charm, the characters could have been pulled off the street in Mayberry and sprinkled with pixie dust, and we know there's a happily ever after awaiting everyone. I'll give Allen credit--there were some unexpected thorns and rough edges in a plot that was as insubstantial as an angel food cake (this also means that I laughed my ass off when I read the 1 star reviews on this book to find so many readers of "wholesome" novels were disgusted and couldn't go on when the first F bomb was dropped or during the first sex scene), but it was predictable and sweet and light-reading. It was the perfect book for vacation because I didn't have to think much and I could easily pick the plot line back up after being distracted. However, that's generally not what I'm looking for in a novel, so I don't think I'll seek out any more Allen books (although I already have The Sugar Queen on my shelf--it may go with me on my next vacation, but that will probably be my last encounter with Allen's particular brand of magical realism). There were some groan-worthy moments (such as when Ariel Clark is described as smelling like "peaches and cottonwood"--wtf kind of fragrance is that? Who smells like a cottonwood?), but there were some characters who held some undeniable charm for me. The most interesting character, unfortunately, wasn't a main character (I found the Waverley sisters to be rather tiresome). It is Evanelle, an elderly relative of the Waverley sisters, whom I found the most interesting. Evanelle's peculiar talent manifests itself as a compulsive need to give things to people--specific things which always turn out to have a purpose, though Evanelle never knows what that purpose is when giving (at one point she is overwhelmed by the need to give a woman a box of condoms, even though the woman's husband was left impotent after a WWII injury; however, she has been having an affair and ends up pregnant because she doesn't accept Evanelle's gift). The chain of events that occur after Evanelle presents a gift to someone are often the best stories in the novel.

Many of the other reviews have compared this novel to Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, another magical realism book about two polar opposite sisters from a magical family, and some other readers have gone so far as to suggest that Allen has plagiarized Hoffman. I don't think that's quite the case, but the similarities are hard to ignore. However, I enjoyed Practical Magic immensely because there is an undertone of darkness and menace, which Garden Spells lacks. Also, Hoffman includes a little more magical realism while the magic in Allen's book is pretty light. In fact, Allen might be best labeled as "Hoffman-Lite." And that's why I think I'll stick with Hoffman from this point on.

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