My Rating: 4.0 / 5.0
Amazon Rating: 4.40 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 3.97 / 5.00
Emily Benedict is seventeen when her mother, Dulcie, dies and her whole world is turned upside down. She discovers that her grandfather is still very much alive and that he is very happy to give her a home because Dulcie has kept him out of her life ever since she left town as a teenager. Arriving at Grandpa Vance’s house in Mullaby, North Carolina, Emily is shocked to find that he is the archetypal gentle giant, living a quiet and reclusive life in the town that his daughter rocked with a shocking scandal before she left. As Emily uncovers the details of her mother’s early life she is ostracized by many in the town who believe that she will be just as mean and unpleasant as Dulcie. However, it seems that not all the town’s inhabitants are hostile. Win, the son of a strange local family, is willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and then strange lights start to appear outside her bedroom window.
Julia Winterson is a gifted baker who was forced to return to Mullaby by the death of her father. She left the town many years ago after being bullied mercilessly by Dulcie, but she is willing to befriend Emily who is a very different person from her mother as a teenager. Unfortunately, Julia’s father was not a great businessman and ran up huge debts whilst trying to keep his barbeque joint afloat. Now Julia has almost reached the point where she can sell up and go back to her old life, but then her old flame, Sawyer, is showing interest and she just might want to stick around a little longer.
First, I have to say that I find it very difficult to review Ms Allen’s books now because her debut title, Garden Spells, is one of my all time favorite books and the primary reason why I started this blog. This means that I tend to expect the same genius in each of her subsequent titles, which is probably not fair and leads me to sound unnecessarily harsh in my criticisms of them. All I can say is that once you have read a masterpiece it is difficult not to be disappointed if the author does not repeat that level of writing in their later works . . . you have been warned!
As with all her previous titles, we have a series of relationships that are or were dysfunctional in the past and that have consequences in the present. We also have a cast of beautifully drawn, sympathetic characters who make us empathize with them as they struggle with the rigors of daily life. There is also a smattering of the lightly magical realism that we have come to expect, along with an earthy emphasis upon food items and cooking as a magical gift that can affect emotions. We have the expected ‘strange’ families, with their special abilities and the wonderful recreation of the comforting aura of the gentile South. However, there is an unfortunate lack of focus that detracts from the setting and made me wish that the story were structured slightly differently.
Our lead characters, Emily and Julia, are both endearing and carry us along on their journeys, but that is one of my major complaints about this book. The fact that there are two leads means that our time and attention is divided between them and neither becomes the primary focus. This leads to two love interests, two backgrounds that need to be explored and understood and two sets of problems to overcome. I really wish that Ms Allen had chosen only one as the main focus of the story and kept the other in the role of strong support. Indeed, at first I thought that Emily would be the main protagonist, with Julia as an interesting mother figure, who would help to provide emotional support and excellent baked goods during the revelations about Dulcie’s life. I think that this would have made more sense and allowed us to concentrate mush more on the complex, fascinating and confusing person that was Dulcie, who has to be one of the most interesting non-present characters I have ever read.
Indeed, Dulcie is almost given more of a character arc than the living members of the cast, which is not in itself a problem, but which points out one other flaw in the plotting. A concentration on Emily and her journey of discovery would have given us more room to see how she coped and changed as her world view was destroyed and then rebuilt by her increasing knowledge of her mother’s past. I cannot imagine how terrifying it would be to suddenly become an orphan and then find out that so much of what you had taken for ‘truth’ was actually a form of deception. To suddenly discover that your wonderful, philanthropic, loving mother had been a terrible person who did unspeakable things when she was a teenager. To uncover all the sadness and regret that filled the grandfather who had been kept from you throughout your childhood so that your mother could ignore what she had been in the past. There was so much to follow in this journey that I almost feel cheated that we could not see it all.
As always, it is the little details and wonderful character work that carried me past my disappointment in the plotting. Grandpa Vance was an especially wonderful character to read because he himself was so subtle and understated. As a genuine freak of nature he is always painfully aware of his difference from everyone else, and, unlike Dulcie, he could never simply move away to somewhere new and reinvent himself. His gentleness and the tenderness with which her treats his new-found granddaughter were very touching, so the final revelations were all the more moving because I felt so much empathy for this lovely man.
I felt that most of the magic incorporated into the story was nicely handled. The wallpaper in Emily’s room that would change with her mood seemed like an excellent metaphor for the almost chameleon-like quality that many teenagers have to change and reinvent themselves endlessly. I also liked Sawyers ability to sense sweets and how that little magic fed into his story. However, the main magical item, which I will not reveal as it is a major spoiler, was rather too obvious to me. I am not someone who can easily recognize where a plot is going, so if I find it blazingly obvious before the big reveal I feel cheated rather than clever. In this case, I thought that the big magical secret was rather silly and impractical and would have been common knowledge in a very short space of time when the family first arrived in the town.
On the whole, this was an enjoyable read, and I thoroughly recommend it to anyone who likes Ms Allen’s other titles, but it left me a little disappointed. In some ways I wish I could read it without the knowledge of what she has written before, so that I could give a more impartial review, but I cannot ‘unread’ her previous works.