Garden Spells has a touch of magic to it and it’s not just the sparkly glitter frosting on the book’s cover. It’s a modern fairy tale/myth that captured my imagination right from the start. Maybe it’s because there is an enchanted garden, in flower all year round, with a magic apple tree at its centre. Maybe it’s because it has a warm, cosy ‘once upon a time’ feel and I needed something completely different from other books I’ve read recently. Whatever it was this book, together with Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost (post on this book to follow), helped pull me out of the reading rut I’d experienced after the high point of reading C J Sansom’s Revelation.
The Waverleys, considered by their neighbours as just a little bit weird, have lived in Bascom, North Carolina for generations. Ever since Sydney Waverley left home ten years previously Claire, her older sister has continued to live in the house, tend the garden and run a catering business using plants she has grown. She is kept busy, as
all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tree cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would only notice the beauty of your home and never the flaws. Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. Honeysuckle wine served on the fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. The nutty flavour of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not.
Claire is not the only Waverley with magic powers; her cousin, Evanelle gives people strange gifts, such as a rhinestone brooch, a ball of yarn, little packets of ketchup and tweezers, which they later find are just what they need. These magic powers have made Claire independent and her only contact with people is through her catering business. In addition, she is wary of becoming attached to anyone fearing that if she lets herself become emotionally involved she will get hurt and that they will leave her (her mother abandoned her and Sydney, leaving their grandmother to bring them up).
Even though it is essentially a comforting read there are serious issues within the story. Sydney returns to Bascom, with her five-year old daughter, Bay, leaving her partner, David in the dead of night, after suffering years of physical abuse. She has tried to leave him before, but he has always found her and forced her back. This time she is determined that he won’t find her. Their arrival throws Claire off balance, even though she welcomes them into the house. Sydney’s reappearance in Bascom sets ripples running through the neighbourhood, causing changes not just for Claire. Old friends are both pleased and horrified at her return.
There is also a newcomer to Bascom, Tyler Hughes, who has moved in to the house next door to Claire. He has seen her around and is immediately attracted to her, much to her discomfort and Claire’s comfortable life is thrown into disarray. The apple tree in the Waverley garden is a very temperamental tree and has a habit of throwing its apples at people from its branches. Eating one of these apples affects people in strange ways. So when Tyler eats an apple that the tree has tossed over into his yard he has the most amazing dream.
Garden Spells is a book to enjoy and read quickly, its romantic elements verging on chick-lit, reminding me of Sophie Kinsella’s books (which I also enjoy). I was also struck by the comparison (but not a strict parallel) with the Garden of Eden and the tree of knowledge of good and evil at its centre, with the serpent persuading Eve to tempt Adam to eat the apple.