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R&R 085 | Garden Spells

Sarah Addison Allen
Garden Spells
First published in: 2007
This edition: Bantam Books / Bantam Dell, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-553-59032-6
Cover design by Jamie S. Warren Youll; cover art by Melody Cassen

(Photo is not publicly available at flickr.)

When I first stumbled upon the book Garden Spells in a bookstore, I wanted to get it, but hesitated. Maybe it wasn't for me? There was something alluring about it though, so I did end up getting it some time later. It was the whole idea that filled me with warmth: a book about family, food and magic. And a very stubborn apple tree with a will of its own.

The Waverley's are a rather notorious family in their small hometown in North-Carolina… because they are known to be involved in magic. Claire Waverley is not just any caterer: her delicious food contains magical ingredients which help their clients keep secrets, or to be honest with one and other. It can ignite passion by allowing people to remember the happier moments in life. Anything's possible with the right ingredients.
Catering to other people's feelings and desires, Claire neglects to confront her own, but is forced to when her sister Sydney returns home. Claire and her sister Sydney were abandoned by their free-spirited mother and at some point, Sydney herself left Claire, too. Claire has closed herself off from other people ever since.
Leading a controlled life in mostly solitude, Claire's existence is turned upside down by the arrival of her sister and two other people: Sydney's daughter Bay, and new neighbour Tyler.

Sarah Addison Allen's debut is definitely a sweet read. A cute, light read. But that is all it was. Garden Spells is simplified; it stays on the surface far too much. And there isn't a lot for the reader to think about, or discover.

The Waverley sisters & their elderly cousin Evanelle have magical abilities in some way or another. The town considers the Waverley's to be odd, but conveniently accepts their magic in unison. There is no friction. The reader doesn't discover the Waverley's magical properties; the reader is told immediately: The Waverley's are magical. The end. The reader is forced to accept it just as the town evidently does, as there is no explanation, no lead-in. A perfect example of telling, instead of showing.

It continues. Take the apple tree, which is supposed to be a prominent being in the Waverley's family. The tree is mentioned a few times. Its actions of throwing apples to get attention literally told to us (but not explained). But that's it. The apple tree is there, it exists, and that's all the information you get. Again, the reader is being told what's there, and has to accept it. There is no explanation of how the tree came to be, and how the Waverley's came to be connected to the tree. Actually, there barely is any family history to speak of.

With this book – and this explains the photo – I kept thinking of having one of that tree's apples shoved down my throat. Here's an apple. Eat it. Accept it. And Allen just keeps at it.

It's clear from the start that Claire is being matched up with new neighbour Tyler. No surprise there. But their relationship is also simplified. Instead of showing the reader any chemistry between them, the reader just gets told that Tyler likes Claire, and that Claire likes Tyler too, though she struggles enormously with letting him in. Nothing in the book to me makes it understandable WHY they like each other. I just know that they DO. Tyler had a dream or something, but what did it entail? WHAT about Claire makes him like her? And vice versa. It's quite sudden, quite literal. (Same goes for Sydney and her love interest.)
Halfway through Allen makes the mistake (in my opinion) of going in the direction of a romance story… complete with an utterly cheesy sex scene. In this case it kind of cheapened the book a little. Even a Harlequin novel has more romantic build-up than this.

Allen does the same thing with Claire and Sydney's rocky relationship. We know it is rocky, but we know on the surface. Allen doesn't go very deep into these women's emotions and psychology. One might argue that she doesn't have to, but Allen opened the door to Claire's (supposedly) deep emotional hurt. Do something with it, for heaven's sake! Claire came across as very cold, but Allen kept her “refrigerated”, so to speak. Hidden from us, unknown, hard to warm up to. I kept imagining Claire with her back turned towards me, standing at a kitchen counter. Busy. Unavailable.

Instead of going deeper into any relationship or character's history or more family history in general, Allen decided to fill the remainder of her few pages – the book is relatively thin – with irrelevant subplots, the worst one being a subplot involving Sydney's high school sweetheart and his current wife. Hunter John and…

…okay I can't just let that one slide. Before I continue: “HUNTER JOHN”? Seriously? Either just name him Hunter, or name him John, but don't overdo it with Hunter John1. The whole time, I swear, I imagined him as Snow White's hunter (complete with gun, hunter outfit and a name tag saying "John") chasing after rabbits in the Waverley's backyard while getting apples thrown at his head. Call me petty for complaining about it, but it bothered the hell out of me.

Anyway, Hunter John and his wife Emma have their very own storyline, which involves Sydney-related jealousy, but the plot is completely useless when it quickly becomes clear that Emma's an insecure, over-sexed nut job, and that neither Sydney nor Hunter John have any interest in one and other. The subplot lost its connection to the main plot quickly and went nowhere in particular. It was useless.

Allen would have done better to devote more pages to back story and romantic build-up. It would still be an easy and light read, but one people could relate to. One readers could actually discover for themselves! Garden Spells is uninspiring…

…and unoriginal. The story is a blend of Alice Hoffman's Practical Magic (or: the Sandra "fiercely deserving Oscar winner" Bullock / Nicole Kidman movie, about two magical sisters without parents in their lives, who have a rocky relationship, one of them returns home while the other one struggles with a new relationship) and the Sarah Michelle Gellar flick Simply Irresistible (about a young woman who has the ability to make magic happen via food).

The one thing I liked about this book was Evanelle and her ability to sense what people need in the near future. Her subsequent (constant) gifting of soon-to-be-needed objects was a lovely idea for a magical character. But she alone isn't enough to make this book special.

I never put this book on a pedestal. I finished it with ease – and it wasn't boring. Just inadequate. I expected “Garden Spells: a magical, warm story about family and sisterhood”. I ended up reading Garden Spell-It-Out, and that's a title I won't be recommending. (And I won't be reading her next books, either.)

1. I apologize in advance if you're reading this, and your name is Hunter John.

R&R series © Karin E. Lips 2008-2010 (and beyond)

Karin Elizabeth
  • Arielle

    I loved this book for the reasons that you hated it. I think a lot of it has to do with when I read this book. I actually expected not to like it that much, but ended up loving it because it was just what I needed, a book that spells it out for you so you don't have to think too much! Oh and I thought Evanelle was great too 🙂

    March 15, 2010 at 8:00 pm
  • Karin Elizabeth

    Ha, exactly the other way around: I expected to like it and didn't (hate is a big word… I didn't hate it. I just don't think of it as a good book.)
    I can understand your opinion of this book, certainly 🙂 It's definitely about a reader's expectations too! It's a light book and you really don't have to think so much plus the story's uplifting. If that's what you need, it offers that.
    But for reasons known the book wasn't sufficient for me… Yes, the book has enough pages to read, but they didn't contain enough to discover, experience, feel. I thought it was such a pity, because I hoped to really empathize with the story. Oh well 🙂
    Evanelle was great, yes. Original! I loved her. If the writer ever decided on an Evanelle spin-off, I might be persuaded to read it 😉 But only that I'm afraid 😛
    Wow, endless comment. *wraps it up*

    March 15, 2010 at 10:28 pm

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