For readers hopelessly smitten by Southern writers, North Carolina native Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells should arrive with a gentle warning: Proceed with caution once you start reading, this book is impossible to put down.

To be sure, Allen's literary debut is a magical novel, nearly perfect in capturing the imperfections that define a shattered family. For sisters Claire and Sydney Waverly, an unplanned reunion born of desperation, not fondness, means tiptoeing around the shards of a painful shared history in their grandmother's stately Queen Anne home. Abandoned as children by a mother whose favorite pastimes included shoplifting and bad men, the girls have inherited the family home and, above all, a mystical garden that is both feared and revered by the Waverlys' neighbors in Bascom, North Carolina.

Indeed, a temperamental apple tree with prophetic powers is one of Allen's delicately drawn and pluckily poignant characters, as is the new next-door neighbor. The son of hippie parents who dreams of an old-fashioned romance with roots, art professor Tyler falls madly in love with Claire a caterer with a cautious heart, who pours her passion into myriad secret recipes for lavender bread, dandelion quiche and geranium wine. Ruminating over recipes run amok, Claire laments, "It turned out to be a disastrous meal, passion and impatience and resentment clashing like three winds coming from different directions and meeting in the middle of the table. The butter melted. The bread toasted itself. Water glasses overturned."

As Garden Spells unfolds, yielding rapturous, poetic storytelling, Claire and Sydney begin to make peace with their past to create something that eluded them a perfect childhood for Bay, Sydney's 5-year-old daughter. Of course, real-life rifts are never simple to mend, and Allen wields her literary needle and thread with a wisdom that bellies her status as a first-time novelist. Readers will rejoice over their discovery of this immensely talented young writer, savoring the last few pages of Allen's enchanting novel, which linger like a song in your head, long after you've reached the end.

 

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