“Garden Spells” by Sarah Addison Allen

Dana Thompson

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Photo courtesy of Random House Publishing, Inc.

Anticipating a weeklong period of loafing upon my return home from Whitman, I decided to pick up a low-commitment read at my local (seventy miles is local, right?) bookstore. Nothing too intellectually or emotionally demanding.

And I got it.

“Garden Spells” by Sarah Addison Allen (first red flag: writer takes herself seriously enough to include her full name on the cover just above an image of a woman crouching among apples…or are they tomatoes…) drew me because I liked the idea of a mysterious garden in which anything––even magic?––can happen. Now that I think about it, this is strongly echoing Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden”, in which three children go nutty as little British fruitcakes in a high-walled garden, and among the pages of which can be found such exclamations as, “‘The Magic is in me! The Magic is making me strong!'” It was one of my favorite childhood books. Maybe I was trying to recapture it.

I really should have just reread “The Secret Garden” (for the eighteenth time). Although “Garden Spells” is certainly reminiscent of Burnett’s enthusiastic celebration of domestic vegetation, Allen’s attempt to make the story more grown-up was largely just . . . uninspiring.

Following the stories of Claire and Sydney Waverly, “Garden Spells” details how the two sisters separate and come back together in their house that happens to have a magical garden. Oh, and the house is magical. And the family is magical too. They’re pretty much all magical. There’s some romance (that gets a little risqué at times), petty rivalries, domestic violence and a whole lot of––you guessed it––MAGIC. Some particularly strange additions are the unexplained inclusion of mass categorization (“All Hopkins men marry older women;”  “All Clark women are good between the sheets”) and the presence of a freaky apple tree that throws enchanted apples at people for no apparent reason. And trust me, I like to analyze these things. I just couldn’t see any feasible reason to include them in the story, besides giving the atmosphere a little boost.

And here we realize that “Garden Spells” is actually a member of a new genre that I have decided needs to exist called “Atmosphere Books.” These books are written for no other reason than to impart an impression on you of a neat place that would be slightly difficult for a moviemaker to recreate in a set. They’re low-budget fluff movies. You finish reading them and feel like you have to take a shower to get rid of all the saccharine sauce in your nooks and crannies. Another example is “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern. I finished that book, sat back, and thought, “what the cow was the point of what I just read?”

“Garden Spells” is the same. Perfect if your eyes need a place to sit and eat potato chips while your brain goes off and does something important.

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