For most of my adult life, I've always felt that food and it's flavors can solve a whole lot of life's turmoil. Even now, on a bad day, homemade macaroni and cheese can make everything all better. So when I read Carrie's review on Garden Spells, a book about a woman who uses her garden herbs in her catering business to achieve "special" results, I was THERE. I immediately reflected back on my love affair with the audio book The School of Essential Ingredients, one of the most charming novels I read last year. I wanted more of that foodie magic!
The Waverley women have reputations that precedes themselves in their small southern town. They all have unique "gifts", whether it be bestowing ordinary items to townsfolk that can be life-changing in the future, or styling hair that reinvents its recipient. Claire's gift is one of cooking delicious dishes with her edible flowers that can create feelings of love, enlightenment or any other emotion of her choosing. She is repressed and reclusive though, as a result of being abandoned by her mother and her sister in her earlier years. When a good-looking man moves into the neighborhood and is interested in her, and simultaneously her sister returns home with her daughter in attempt to escape a violent past, her quiet, protected world is turned upside down. The sisters attempt to heal their broken relationship, make peace with family skeletons, and maybe even find love, all with the help of a little bit of Waverley magic.
Well, it looks good on paper. And many bloggers have loved this book, so this may be a case of Cranky Sandy. But it didn't sit well with me for several reasons. I found myself almost agitated at the personality of Claire. Although I understand the woman had baggage, she was so inhibited and so uptight, I wanted to shake her. She turns her back on the only male attention she has had in years, she freaks out if her sister comes home late, and can't handle friendly gestures. Honestly, I couldn't figure out what the good-looking neighbor saw in her. I also found sub-plots in the story distracting. The gay man who was dumped by his lover, the snobby socialite that is threatened by Claire's sister and uses sex to get her way in life, the abusive ex that has murder on his mind. In a different novel, these plots would charm and entertain, but in this situation, they seemed stereotyped and stilted.
On the positive side, there is a touch of southern atmosphere in the book. That, combined with the slightly mystical qualities of the story, gives it a dreamy feel. And while the outcome of the story is predictable, it has a definitive happy ending. This could possibly be the reason for all of the positive reviews. In a lighter mood, this book may have charmed me.
This is also one situation where the audio book did not support the cause. The narrator had a very strange sound to her voice, almost forced and unnaturally melodic, reminding me of the princess narrators for the old Disney movies. Early in my listening, when I realized that I did not like the narrator, I tried very hard to separate that from the prose, but it all kind of left me cold.
I really wanted to like this book, but there was no way to salvage the experience once it started. I have heard so many wonderful things about Allen's other books, so I will no doubt give her another go!
2.5 out of 5 stars