The fantasy genre has always been the realm of larger than life. Dragons, vampires, super humans. Take the Harry Potter series and Avatar — those other-worldly adventures that ask viewers to suspend not just belief but pretty much all they know about the world, human abilty and spoken language. But, for the reader who likes magical realism with a larger helping of reality (with the magical part acting as a few choice sprinkles on an utterly edible cupcake), local author Sarah Addison Allen has found the perfect recipe.
Allen, who grew up in Asheville, is poised to release her third novel, The Girl Who Chased the Moon (Bantam, 2010), on Tuesday, March 16. The story, set in a small North Carolina town, is anything but small-minded. Teenager Emily arrives in Mullaby after losing her mother. She’s come to live with a grandfather who she’s never met before and, upon arriving, finds her grandfather is a real-life giant. But Grandpa Vance is hardly the oddest thing about Mullaby. For starters, the whole town smells of barbecue. The wallpaper in Emily’s room changes pattern of its own accord, the townspeople all avoid Emily like the plague, Emily’s neighbor, Julia, bakes cakes to bring back lost love, and there are mysterious lights in the woods at night. For Emily, it’s almost too much to bear.
“Coming here had been a mistake. A huge mistake,” Allen writes. “She should have known her mother had a good reason for keeping this place from Emily. This place wasn’t right. There was something distinctly off about it. She’d felt it all along. People here committed suicide just for breaking tradition. For coming out at night.”
But for all the pain that Emily encounters — on top of Mullaby’s oddities, Emily has a hard time getting a straight story about her late mother, Dulcie, and why Dulcie fled her home town — Allen packs her prose with so much sweetness, charm, surprise and whimsy that it reads far more like a happy dream than a tragedy.
Julia, the town baker, steals the show at many points — she’s a character the author obviously loved creating. “Julia laughed. It was a great laugh, and hearing it was like stepping into a spot of sunshine,” she writes. “That she came bearing cake seemed oddly fitting. It was like she was made of cake, light and pretty and decorated on the outside — with her sweet laugh and pink streak to her hair — but it was anyone’s guess what was on the inside.”
Allen also stacks her tale with plenty of Southernisms: “In North Carolina, barbecue means pork, child. Hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill — that’s called ‘cooking out’ around here” and “Any kind of cake means ‘Welcome’…except for coconut cake. You give coconut cake and fried chicken when there’s a death.”
And, if that’s not enough, there’s intrigue: Emily begins to learn that her mother left the town after the mysterious death of Logan Coffee. As Emily grows close to Logan’s nephew, Win, she finds herself pulled into the town’s best-kept secret: the mysterious Mullaby lights.
And, finally, there’s romance. Sexy Sawyer is intent on rekindling a high school romance he shared with Julia. The baker isn’t so sure, but Allen’s handling of that heated material shows off the bodice-ripping skills the author honed as a romance writer. (For real.)
For more about Allen, read an Interview with The Hot Author Report’s Blogalogues
To kick off her national tour, Allen will be doing a talk and signing at Malaprops on Tuesday, March 16, 7 p.m. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter