There are conversations that you have so many times that they almost cease to have meaning. My husband can hold forth for some time on Why Colorado Drivers Don’t Know How To Merge. One of my counterparts is surely Why, For The Love Of God, Are So Many Romances Set In Small Towns? I’ve whined about it enough that even I am tired of the subject. Imagine my surprise when I picked up this book and enjoyed so much I nearly forgot my small town grudge altogether. Garden Spells is what a lot of books would like to be: A cute, fanciful, small town story. Which just goes to show that it’s possible to take any plot and make it fresh.
While I suppose it’s technically Women’s Fiction, there are actually two romances here. Sydney and Claire Waverly are two sisters who experienced their small town upbringing in completely different ways. Claire was six when she moved to Bascom, North Carolina. After a life on the run, Bascom and her grandmother’s home represent the only security she’s ever know. She throws herself into the family legacy, tending a magical garden and then opening a catering business when she’s older. Sydney, born in Bascom, has always felt stifled by small town life and pigeon-holed by the town’s expectations. She left right after high school, stealing and drifting from town to town like her mother before her. An abusive relationship (and fear for her daughter, Bay) drive Sydney to return home to Bascom; suddenly, it represents security.
Bascom is a somewhat unusual town in which many people seem to believe that family name dictates destiny. Clark women all marry well and keep their husbands interested with their legendary sexual prowess. All Hopkins men marry older women. And Waverlys are outsiders with bizarre talents. Claire can manipulate others with the food she creates from the herbs in her garden. Sydney’s gift is with hair; she can find the perfect style for everyone, and her haircuts give people confidence in an almost supernatural way. Their cousin Evanelle has a driving need to give things to people – things they will need later, though she never knows why her recipients need them. Bay’s talent is knowing where things belong without having to be told. And the Waverly home has a legendary apple tree with apples that will show anyone who eats one the biggest moment of his life (either happy or tragic).
Sydney and Claire both have love interests. For Claire, it’s Tyler, her new neighbor who is an art professor at the local college. He’s determined to be part of her life, and she’s resistant to any type of change. After the losses in her life, she doesn’t feel she can depend on anyone. For Sydney, it’s an old childhood friend. While these relationships are a big part of the book, the sisters’ relationship is equally important. They didn’t get along as children, so trust isn’t something that comes automatically. But each has qualities that the other lacks, and both of them help each other overcome the wounds of the past.
This is really an ensemble story, as a good small town book should be. It succeeds admirably in that you end up liking the people you are supposed to like: Sydney, Claire and their family members/love interests; Emma and Hunter John Clark, Sydney’s sometime rivals. The villains are either truly despicable (Sydney’s abusive ex) or just smarmy and clueless enough to earn your dislike (Emma’s mom).
The magic is what makes the story fun, but it’s subtle enough that it doesn’t take over the story. You don’t get the sense that it’s only around to compensate for uninteresting characters or a too-thin plot; rather, it’s the icing on the cake. The apple tree throws apples at people to tempt them into seeing the future. Tyler’s desire for Claire makes him emit purple sparks. Claire’s angry, hot shower fogs up the entire neighborhood, and she changes a meal mid-catering job so that people who have been mean to Sydney will regret it. It all adds just the right touch of fancy.
While Garden Spells lacks that just-can’t-put-it-down quality that distinguishes an A, it’s still well worth a look. If you like small town Southern fiction – or even if, like me, you usually avoid it – you’ll likely find this a quick, fanciful read. And (big bonus points) there’s not a sheriff to be seen.