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Seasonal Reads

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Monday, Feb 1, 2010
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Garden Spells

Sarah Addison Allen

(Bantam; US: Dec 1969)

Some people have summer and winter shoes; some people have seasonal homes or drinks. I have seasonal books. Some books are simply best in the summer, and some are best in the winter.


When Sarah Addison Allen’s Garden Spells was published in 2007, many reviewers noted that it was the perfect summer read: light, quick, fun.


I can see how Garden Spells works as a summer book. The horticultural references alone could make it a summer book. However, I picked it up again last week and found that it is the perfect book to chase away winter’s grayness. 


In Allen’s own words: “[Garden Spells] was supposed to be a simple story about two sisters reconnecting after many years. But then the apple tree started throwing apples and the story took on a life of its own ...”  In many ways, Garden Spells is still a simple story just with the added bonus of some magical realism. In the book, two sisters, Claire and Sydney, whose lives took them on very different paths, reunite in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina to form a family, create a home, and learn to trust and love. Two other characters, Evanelle, a wonderfully quirky cousin, and Bay, Sydney’s delightful daughter, complete the family and round out the cast of characters. 


Garden Spells mixes eccentric, but not stereotyped, southern characters with very believable magical realism to produce a wonderfully stress-free story. For better or for worse, you aren’t going to worry about how the story ends—you simply know it is going to end well. There is something of a fairy tale element to this book, which is probably one of the reasons many people classify Garden Spells as a summer (or beach) read.


The plot may not offer many surprises, but the characters keep the pages turning. They are crafted with care and creativity, and they are what makes the book so special. Each main character has a magical gift, and these gifts are both practical and whimsical. For example, Evanelle’s gift is giving gifts. She always gives people the exact gift they need. A cigarette letter, a brooch, a mango splitter—she just knows what people need (although she doesn’t always know why) and gives it to them. What reader wouldn’t be just a little envious of Evanelle’s gift, particularly after reflecting back over the holiday shopping season? Or perhaps we wish our friends and relatives might have just a little more of Evanelle’s magic.


Garden Spells is not just about magic; this book is also a type of magic. It can make people forget. It made me forget the cold, the ice, and the snow. It could just as easily make people forget about holiday weight gain, the latest bit of annoying (and overly reported) celebrity gossip, or an irritating boss/spouse/child, etc. And to me this is, ultimately, what makes it an outstanding winter read. Garden Spells, a cup of tea, and a big cozy chair. It’s the perfect way to spend a cold and dreary afternoon.


On the other hand, if you happen to be someplace where it is warm and sunny, think about picking up Allen’s second novel The Sugar Queen. It’s a great summer read.


And, since winter is still far from over for many of us, if anyone can recommend another good winter read, I’d appreciate it.


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