Stories that depend on magic can all too easily become fairy tales—childish and cute, often far-fetched and always divorced from the real world of grownup love and tragedy. They frequently come off as self-referential and self-centered as a spoiled 7-year-old.
Asheville-based novelist Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells (Bantam, 2007) is a wonderful world away from nursery-school wizards and magic wands. The story is that of Claire Waverly—of the Bascom, N.C., Waverlys—a family graced (or burdened) with special talents and an enchanted apple tree. Claire’s skills run to cooking and herbs, various mixtures of which mend hearts, spark imagination, instill doubt or grant wisdom. Logically enough, she runs a catering business and appetites and business are both good.
Herbs grown in proximity to the apple tree are most potent, and the apples themselves might well have sprung from the trouble-making tree in Eden. Consuming the fruit brings precognition of the most important moment of one’s life, a bit of knowledge that may as easily curse as bless if the vision is dark. Do we really want, for example, to know when and how we will die? Or that the best is already past? Or that we will fail those we love? Most Waverlys, hip to the downside, don’t eat the fruit. They bury it.
With domestic violence and child abuse, same-gender lovers and social climbers, farmers and hairdressers, Allen’s magic tale takes place in a completely believable small-town world. The magic is present, but subtle. Claire has an aunt whose Waverly talent is bestowal of gifts, knick-knacks, tools or wrong-sized garments that the befuddled recipient is sure to need in the not-distant future. Claire’s hair-stylist sister performs real makeovers while her young niece has an uncanny knack for restoring order to disordered lives. This is magic writ small.
Garden Spells may not qualify as a romance novel, though the author has confessed to interest in the genre and Random House keeps it in the romance bin online. A better description would be magic realism, with just enough introspection and wisdom to provide a little of the mirror effect that makes fiction worthwhile without bogging down in angsty analysis and depression.
Allen’s plot line is adroit. She scatters snippets and clues enough to keep a reader wondering, leavens it with all-too-tangible looming doom and manages a surprise at the end that is seamless and satisfying. Along the way, she offers a nod to the legendary Bascom Lamar Lunsford, founder of the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival in Asheville, both in the town’s name and in its swimming hole, Lunsford reservoir.
The book has been tapped as a Book Sense Book of the Month and Barnes & Noble featured title. An excerpt will run in the September issue of Reader’s Digest and editions are already licensed in 10 countries. Not bad for starters.
Sarah Addison Allen presents Garden Spells Sunday, Sept. 9, at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café (55 Haywood St.). 3 p.m. Free. 254-6734.