'Garden Spells' enchants as a debut novel

Sarah Addison Allen's novel plays like a Southern 'Practical Magic.'

Claire Waverley, North Carolina caterer, has more trouble with apples than anyone since Snow White. The tree in her garden likes to hurl fruit at passersby. And if anyone eats one, they get quite a taste of the knowledge of good and evil. The Waverleys have kept the tree locked up for generations, but they've still gotten a reputation among locals. Certainly, some of Claire's recipes have unusual effects – her tea biscuits are guaranteed to make women keep secrets, for example. And her cousin Evanelle finds herself compelled to give people items – quarters, lighters, Strawberry Pop Tarts – that inevitably come in handy. Now, after 10 years, Claire's prodigal sister, Sydney, has come back to Bascom with her young daughter in tow, and the town is wondering if it can handle four Waverleys at once.

Sarah Addison Allen's mainstream debut works best as a charming fairy tale – a final summer read before bookworms get buried under the avalanche of fall's literary heavyweights. Alice Hoffman fans will notice more than a few parallels with "Practical Magic": a tale centered around two sisters – one staid, one wild – with a gift for household witchery. Although Allen doesn't have Hoffman's lyrical ability, and the novel's romantic subplots lack depth, she imbues "Garden Spells" with a Southern charm that readers won't want to resist any more than they would Claire's violet cake. Grade: B

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