Garden Spells is the second novel I’ve read this year that emphasizes cooking and creative recipes in its story. The other novel was the first book I completed this year — Delicious! by Ruth Reichl, a contemporary novel about a 20-something woman who moves to New York City to work at a food magazine.
I feel as if Garden Spells has been hounding me, pushing me to read it. It kept popping up on many of the book recommendation lists I’ve looked at this year: lists featuring witchy books, books inspired by nature, books containing descriptive prose. It was the descriptive prose list that convinced me to finally give the novel a try, and I’m glad I did.
Magical realism; romance
Waverley Family (book 1)
Unbound Worlds summary:
This is the brief synopsis included alongside the novel on Unbound Worlds’ list of nature-based fantasy novels. I think it does a better job than Goodreads of succinctly stating what the story is about without giving away too much:
The Waverley family has always been a subject of gossip and curiosity, but it’s their garden that makes them famous. Behind their family home lies a stunning garden that’s rumored to be full of magic. But the family has difficulties that magic may not be able to cure — the Waverley sisters are estranged. Claire works as a caterer and cooks magic dishes, prepared with plants from the garden. She has a neat and tidy life, but it’s upended when her sister, Sydney, returns home to Bascom, North Carolina, with a daughter in tow. Now the sisters must see if the magic from their garden can heal the oldest and deepest of wounds and bring them together once again. (Goodreads)
This is one of those novels that enchant me from its first sentence, leaving me in a daze where I can hardly do anything else but read the story and think about it when I’m not. Whenever I fall in love with a book from this early on, it’s always because of the prose. Allen’s prose is descriptive. It gently eases me into the story and wafts me along the story’s ebb and flow. I enjoyed it. This style of writing is catnip for me. I love the imagery it evokes and how it brought the story to life for me. As I read, I felt as if I fell into the story and was swallowed by it, like Harry falling into Dumbledore’s memory in the Pensieve. And though the prose is descriptive, it doesn’t slow the pace. I was able to complete the novel — about 300 pages or so — in a day.
The setting quickly grabbed my interest. The story is set in a small town in southern U.S. Almost everyone knows each other and I love that local legends are accepted by the locals as absolute truths, such as that the Waverleys grow magical plants and have an apple tree that bears apples that foretell the future; in every generation of the Young family, there’s one called Phineas who’s born with superior strength and is considered the strongest man in town; and the Hopkins men always marry older women.
I also love the descriptions of the Waverley house, which Claire thinks of as an “ostentatious Queen Anne.” I love that style of architecture. There are many Queen Anne-style houses around Washington, D.C., and they are all so beautiful, even the ones that were in disrepair. I love the wraparound porches and bay windows (I love bay windows!) and towers and pitched roofs and that some are painted a variety of colors. I had all that in mind when I learned the Waverley house is a Queen Anne and imagined a large, neat but bountiful garden in the backyard with an apple tree in the middle. This is now one of my favorite fictional settings, second to Hogwarts.
The characters were all delightful. My favorites were, of course, the quirkiest ones (so all the Waverleys, lol), like Evanelle, who’s always compelled to give things to people, which many find odd because the things she gives aren’t needed at the moment she gives them and Evanelle does not know what or when the things she gives will be needed. That added some humor to the story, but she’s much more accurate at detecting a person’s emotional needs. I also liked Sydney’s daughter, Bay, a precocious child (I forgot how old she is) with a knack for knowing where things belong. And of course, there’s the apple tree, which is probably my favorite character in the entire story, though it’s only mentioned a couple times.
For the most part, the story is light and delightful. The characters and their antics make it entertaining and Claire’s ingenious recipes often made my mouth water as I wondered not only what her dishes would taste like but how they would make me feel. She uses flowers from her garden to make them so they not only satiate hunger but also spark and, I guess, manipulate emotions.
Some readers have categorized Garden Spells as fantasy, but I lean more toward magical realism. The “magical” occurrences are nothing of great wonder in the story. They are presented as the town simply accepting that the Waverleys grow plants that affect people in curious ways once consumed, and that the Waverleys are a curious bunch in general. There’s at least one character who doesn’t believe in the curious effects of the Waverleys’ flowers, and I don’t think he’s exactly convinced of it by the story’s end.
Overall: ★★★★☆ ½
I really enjoyed this novel and now consider it a favorite. I was even tempted to reread it after rereading the first sentence prior to starting this review.
Buy | Borrow | Bypass
That’s if, like me, you love descriptive prose and sweet stories set in small towns with quirky characters and interesting recipes. (It gave me Good Witch vibes.) If not, then I recommend you Borrow it because I think it’s worth the read.
I plan to get myself a copy since I borrowed the e-book from the library.
Quotes from the book:
“Memories, even hard memories, grew soft like peaches as they got older.”
“Young men at gatherings like this were like dust skittering to corners, trying to get away from the movement of skirts and the breath of ladies’ laughter.”
“Being left makes you doubt your ability to keep people, even friends.”
“Summer was a lady who didn’t give up her spotlight easily. Emma understood that. She liked summer.”