Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen
Every once in awhile, I come across a book that doesn't appear to have a lot to recommend it, yet for some reason, I am helpless to resist its charms. From Bridget Jones's Diary, which all but the dour can agree on, to Raymond Chandler's The High Window, which I seem to be alone in preferring to all other Chandler books, sometimes knowing that a book is good-not-great takes all the pressure off. It's truly pleasure reading. Along those lines, Garden Spells didn't shake the very foundations of my belief system, but I had a very hard time putting it down. Its charms are considerable.
Claire Waverly is a 34-year-old emotionally stunted caterer whose meals have strange effects on those who eat them, while her elderly cousin, Evanelle, feels compelled to give people things they'll need later -- sometimes it's a box of Pop Tarts, sometimes it's a box of condoms. And then there's Sydney, the wild younger sister who left town after high school like something out of a Warrant video, and shows up on Claire's door ten years later with her six-year-old daughter and a pile of big secrets.
The two sisters have never been close, and most of the book centers around their efforts to piece together some kind of relationship out of their wreck of a childhood together. The subplots, however, are what give the book its momentum. Some work, like the story involving local sexpot Emma Matteson, who believes that Sydney has come back to town to reclaim her old flame, now Emma's husband. It's a nicely realized character study about adults who never really leave high school.
Sweet, though less successful are the book's love stories. There's the burgeoning relationship between the awkward Claire and her art professor next-door-neighbor, the gay grocery store owner struggling to win back his long-time partner, and the oddly matched Sydney and her childhood friend, Henry, a farmer. It's through these relationships that it becomes clear that the characters and their motivations are not as well developed as they might be.
That said, it's an exceptionally pleasant book to read, and the folksy, slightly magical lull of small town life is enchanting and irresistible.
If you're looking for a less edgy Dorothy Allison, or heck, even a less edgy Lee Smith, or if you like the food-magic of Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate, this book is for you.