Amazon Rating: 4.00 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.81 / 5.00
In Walls of Water, North Carolina, Willa Jackson is the last member of an old and once-wealthy Southern family. At one time the Jacksons were important because of their successful timber industry and Willa’s great-great-grandfather built The Blue Ridge Madam, the grandest house in town. Then came Tucker Devlin, with his easy charm and his idea to replace the waning timber forest with peach trees. Willa’s great-grandfather fell under Devlin’s spell, as did everyone else in the town, especially the young women. However, when Devlin mysteriously vanishes so does the Jackson wealth and the family is plunged into poverty and disgrace.
Since then, the Madam has been a ruin, slowly rotting and falling into decline, but the wealthy Osgood family has recently bought the old house and Paxton, the president of the local Women’s Society Club, has restored and refurbished it as a luxury inn. Paxton plans to make the inn’s opening night into an extra special event because it will be a party to celebrate the seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Club. However, a few days before the party a skeleton is found under an old peach tree that is being removed from the grounds and all of Paxton’s well-laid plans begin to unravel.
As Paxton’s world spins out of control, she leans more and more heavily on her best friend, Sebastian Rogers. Sebastian was rather effeminate in High School and remains carefully asexual now that he is a successful dentist. Everyone thinks that he is gay, but Paxton has fallen in love with him. Meanwhile, Willa is thrown off-balance by the return of Paxton’s twin brother, Colin. The two women are thrown together as their world changes forever.
After reading Ms Allen’s first book, Garden Spells, the ladies in my book group were blown away by her characters and writing style so we voted to read The Sugar Queen not many months later. Although most of us preferred the first title, we were still very impressed by her writing and so this third title was voted in for our June read. We had decided to nominate this title instead of her third book, The Girl Who Chased The Moon, because of the promise of a more mysterious story added to the magical realism. My review here will refer back to the first two titles, so if you have not read them I apologize, but I urge you to rectify that deficiency as soon as possible!
As I have come to expect, Ms Allen creates a lush and charming setting that plays to her strength of portraying the elegance and politeness of Southern society. In Willa’s family we see the embarrassment of a family that falls from great wealth into poverty: her grandmother went from a celebrated Southern belle to being a cleaning lady. We also see the scandal of a child born out of wedlock. However, these negative aspects of the Southern sensibility are counterbalanced by the themes of friendship through the worst adversity and generosity with no thought of repayment. It is unfortunate that these positive aspects are not revealed until close to the end of the book, but they are heart-warming all the same.
I did have a problem with the names of the two female protagonists. I believe that Willa is a traditional Southern name, but Paxton grated on me for some reason, although I found it interesting that the shortened version, Pax, is the Latin for ‘peace’ and Paxton is certainly the peacemaker of her family. Other than their names, the two women are well rounded and feel real. They are both the products of their upbringings, and their past histories are important for their present and future lives. This is also true of the two male leads, who are still fighting against society’s view of them and the roles that they are expected to fill. There are few supporting characters, although I particularly liked Rachel, Willa’s coffee-obsessed employee. The grandmothers of the two women play important roles in the plot and they were also well done, although Willa’s grandmother has dementia so she has very little presence in the book. However, this is made up for by Paxton’s gran, who is a fire-breathing dragon of the old school. She is a wonderful character, and possibly my favorite of Ms Allen’s creations since the redoubtable Evanelle in Garden Spells. For some reason I am drawn to eccentric old ladies who speak their minds and do exactly what they want to: I cannot imagine why!
I was a little disappointed that there seemed to be less magic in this book when compared to the previous two. I was very excited near the beginning when the Women’s Society Club has a meeting where the members begin to blurt out the truths that they have always kept secret. It seemed like this might have been due to one of the foods on offer because the only person who is not overcome by this need for honesty is Paxton, who we are told rarely eats at the meetings. However, we are given no explanation for this event, so I might have been wrong. The only real magic that we see is that of Rachel and her affinity to coffee, although we hear reports of Tucker Devlin that suggest that he could weave magic to his own advantage. There is also a brief cameo by Claire Waverley and a grown up Bay.
I was also somewhat disappointed by the mystery aspect that was much more prominent in this title. It was only marginally successful, mainly because the ‘surprises’ were easy to guess in advance and because it was relegated to the second half of the book and then felt a little rushed in its unfolding. As with The Sugar Queen, there were deep, dark family secrets to be uncovered, although these ones were due far less to the pressures of polite society and more to the terror and naiveté of young girls.
As with The Sugar Queen, I was not drawn to these characters as much I had hoped to be. The romances were a little too predictable and the plot felt out of balance somehow, with a rush to solve the mystery in the last few pages. However, Ms Allen continues to be a very good author and I look forward to reading The Girl Who Chased The Moon with the book group very soon.