In a garden surrounded by a tall fence, tucked away behind a small, quiet house in an even smaller town, is an apple tree that is rumored to bear a very special sort of fruit. In this luminous debut novel, Sarah Addison Allen tells the story of that enchanted tree, and the extraordinary people who tend it.…
The Waverleys have always been a curious family, endowed with peculiar gifts that make them outsiders even in their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. Even their garden has a reputation, famous for its feisty apple tree that bears prophetic fruit, and its edible flowers, imbued with special powers. Generations of Waverleys tended this garden. Their history was in the soil. But so were their futures.
A successful caterer, Claire Waverley prepares dishes made with her mystical plants—from the nasturtiums that aid in keeping secrets and the pansies that make children thoughtful, to the snapdragons intended to discourage the attentions of her amorous neighbor. Meanwhile, her elderly cousin, Evanelle, is known for distributing unexpected gifts whose uses become uncannily clear. They are the last of the Waverleys—except for Claire’s rebellious sister, Sydney, who fled Bascom the moment she could, abandoning Claire, as their own mother had years before.
When Sydney suddenly returns home with a young daughter of her own, Claire’s quiet life is turned upside down—along with the protective boundary she has so carefully constructed around her heart. Together again in the house they grew up in, Sydney takes stock of all she left behind, as Claire struggles to heal the wounds of the past. And soon the sisters realize they must deal with their common legacy—if they are ever to feel at home in Bascom—or with each other.
Enchanting and heartfelt, this captivating novel is sure to cast a spell with a style all its own….
About the Author
Sarah Addison Allen lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where she is at work on her next novel.
Hometown:Asheville, North Carolina
Place of Birth:Asheville, North Carolina
Education:B.A. in Literature, 1994
Read an Excerpt
Every smiley moon, without fail, Claire dreamed of her childhood. She always tried to stay awake those nights when the stars winked and the moon was just a cresting sliver smiling provocatively down at the world, the way pretty women on vintage billboards used to smile as they sold cigarettes and limeade. On those nights in the summer, Claire would garden by the light of the solar-powered footpath lamps, weeding and trimming the night bloomers-the moon vine and the angel's trumpet, the night jasmine and the flowering tobacco. These weren't a part of the Waverley legacy of edible flowers, but sleepless as she often was, Claire had added flowers to the garden to give her something to do at night when she was so wound up that frustration singed the edge of her nightgown and she set tiny fires with her fingertips.
What she dreamed of was always the same. Long roads like snakes with no tails. Sleeping in the car at night while her mother met men in bars and honky-tonks. Being a lookout while her mother stole shampoo and deodorant and lipstick and sometimes a candy bar for Claire at Shop-and-Gos around the Midwest. Then, just before she woke up, her sister, Sydney, always appeared in a halo of light. Lorelei held Sydney and ran to the Waverley home in Bascom, and the only reason Claire was able to go with them was because she was holding tight to her mother's leg and wouldn't let go.
That morning, when Claire woke up in the backyard garden, she tasted regret in her mouth. With a frown, she spit it out. She was sorry for the way she'd treated her sister as a child. But the six years of Claire's life before Sydney's arrival had been fraught with the constant fear of being caught, of being hurt, of not having enough food or gas or warm clothes for the winter. Her mother always came through but always at the last minute. Ultimately, they were never caught and Claire was never hurt and, when the first cold snap signaled the changing colors of the leaves, her mother magically produced blue mittens with white snowflakes on them and pink thermal underwear to wear under jeans and a cap with a droopy ball on top. That life on the run had been good enough for Claire, but Lorelei obviously thought Sydney deserved better, that Sydney deserved to be born with roots. And the small scared child in Claire hadn't been able to forgive her.
Picking up the clippers and the trowel from the ground beside her, she stood stiffly and walked in the dawning fog toward the shed. She suddenly stopped. She turned and looked around. The garden was quiet and damp, the temperamental apple tree at the back of the lot shivering slightly as if dreaming. Generations of Waverleys had tended this garden. Their history was in the soil, but so was their future. Something was about to happen, something the garden wasn't ready to tell her yet. She would have to keep a sharp eye out.
She went to the shed and carefully wiped the dew off the old tools and hung them on their places on the wall. She closed and locked the heavy gate door to the garden, then crossed the driveway at the back of the ostentatious Queen Anne-style home she'd inherited from her grandmother.
Claire entered the house through the back, stopping in the sunroom that had been turned into a drying and cleaning room for herbs and flowers. It smelled strongly of lavender and peppermint, like walking into a Christmas memory that didn't belong to her. She drew her dirty white nightgown over her head, balled it up, and walked naked into the house. It was going to be a busy day. She had a dinner party to cater that night, and it was the last Tuesday in May, so she had to deliver her end-of-the-month shipment of lilac and mint and rose-petal jellies and nasturtium and chive-blossom vinegars to the farmers' market and to the gourmet grocery store on the square, where the college kids from Orion College would hang out after classes.
There was a knock at the door as Claire was pulling her hair back with combs. She went downstairs in a white eyelet sundress, still barefooted. When she opened the door, she smiled at the fireplug of an old lady standing on the porch.
Evanelle Franklin was seventy-nine years old, looked like she was one hundred and twenty, yet still managed to walk a mile around the track at Orion five days a week. Evanelle was a distant relation, a second or third or fourteenth cousin, and she was the only other Waverley still living in Bascom. Claire stuck to her like static, needing to feel a connection to family after Sydney took off when she was eighteen and their grandmother died the same year.
When Claire was young, Evanelle would stop by to give her a Band-Aid hours before she scraped her knee, quarters for her and Sydney long before the ice cream truck arrived, and a flashlight to put under her pillow a full two weeks before lightning struck a tree down the street and the entire neighborhood was without power all night. When Evanelle brought you something, you were usually going to need it sooner or later, though that cat bed she gave Claire five years ago had yet to find its use. Most people in town treated Evanelle kindly but with amusement, and even Evanelle didn't take herself too seriously. But Claire knew there was always something behind the strange gifts Evanelle brought.
"Well, don't you look eye-talian with your dark hair and Sophia Loren dress. Your picture should be on a bottle of olive oil," Evanelle said. She was in her green velour running suit, and slung over her shoulder was a rather large tote bag full of quarters and stamps and egg timers and soap, all things she might feel the need to give someone at some point.
"I was just about to make some coffee," Claire said, stepping back. "Come in."
"Don't mind if I do." Evanelle entered and followed Claire to the kitchen, where she sat at the kitchen table while Claire made the coffee. "You know what I hate?"
Claire looked over her shoulder as steam carrying the smell of coffee curled around the kitchen. "What do you hate?"
"I hate summer."Claire laughed. She loved having Evanelle around. Claire had tried for years to get the old lady to move into the Waverley house so she could take care of her, so the house wouldn't feel as if the walls were moving out of her way as she walked, making the hallways longer and rooms bigger. "Why on earth would you hate summer? Summer is wonderful. Fresh air, open windows, picking tomatoes and eating them while they're still warm from the sun."
"I hate summer because most of them college kids leave town, so there aren't as many runners and I don't have any nice male backsides to look at when I walk the track."
"You're a dirty old lady, Evanelle."
"I'm just sayin'."
"Here you go," Claire said, setting a coffee cup on the table in front of Evanelle.
Evanelle peered into the cup. "You didn't put anything in it, did you?"
"You know I didn't."
"Because your side of the Waverleys always wants to put something in everything. Bay leaves in bread, cinnamon in coffee. I like things plain and simple. Which reminds me, I brought you something." Evanelle grabbed her tote bag and brought out a yellow Bic lighter.
"Thank you, Evanelle," Claire said as she took the lighter and put it in her pocket. "I'm sure this will come in handy."
"Or maybe it won't. I just knew I had to give it to you." Evanelle, who had twenty-eight sweet teeth, all of them false, picked up her coffee and looked over at the covered cake plate on the stainless-steel island. "What have you made over there?"
"White cake. I stirred violet petals into the batter. And I crystallized some violets to put on top. It's for a dinner party I'm catering tonight." Claire picked up a Tupperware container beside it. "This white cake, I made for you. Nothing weird in it, I promise." She set it on the table next to Evanelle."
You are the sweetest girl. When are you going to get married? When I'm gone, who will take care of you?"
"You're not going anywhere. And this is a perfect house for a spinster to live in. I'll grow old in this house, and neighborhood children will vex me by trying to get to the apple tree in the backyard and I'll chase them away with a broom. And I'll have lots of cats. That's probably why you gave me that cat bed."
Evanelle shook her head. "Your problem is routine. You like your routine too much. You get that from your grandmother. You're too attached to this place, just like her."
Claire smiled because she liked being compared to her grandmother. She had no idea about the security of having a name until her mother brought her here, to this house where her grandmother lived. They'd been in Bascom maybe three weeks, Sydney had just been born, and Claire had been sitting outside under the tullip tree in the front yard while people in town came to see Lorelei and her new baby. Claire wasn't new, so she didn't think anyone would want to see her. A couple came out of the house after visiting, and they watched Claire quietly build tiny log cabins with twigs. "She's a Waverley, all right," the woman said. "In her own world."
Claire didn't look up, didn't say a word, but she grabbed the grass before her body floated up. She was a Waverley. She didn't tell anyone, not a soul, for fear of someone taking her happiness away, but from that day on she would follow her grandmother out into the garden every morning, studying her, wanting to be like her, wanting to do all the things a true Waverley did to prove that, even though she wasn't born here, she was a Waverley too."
I have to pack some boxes of jelly and vinegar to deliver," she said to Evanelle. "If you'll wait here for a minute, I'll drive you home."
"Are you making a delivery to Fred's?" Evanelle asked.
"Then I'll just go with you. I need Cokecola. And some Goo Goo Clusters. And maybe I'll pick up some tomatoes. You made me crave tomatoes."
While Evanelle debated the merits of yellow tomatoes versus red, Claire took four corrugated boxes out of the storeroom and packed up the jelly and the vinegar. When she was done, Evanelle followed her outside to her white minivan with Waverley's Catering written on the side.
Evanelle got in the passenger seat while Claire put her boxes in the back, then Claire handed Evanelle the container with her plain white cake in it and a brown paper bag to hold.
"What's this?" Evanelle said, looking in the brown bag as Claire got behind the wheel.
"A special order."
"It's for Fred," Evanelle said knowingly.
"Do you think he'd ever do business with me again if I told you that?"
"It's for Fred."
"I didn't say that."
"It's for Fred."
"I don't think I heard you. Who is it for?"
Evanelle sniffed. "Now you're being Miss Smarty Pants."
Claire laughed and pulled out of the drive.
Business was doing well, because all the locals knew that dishes made from the flowers that grew around the apple tree in the Waverley garden could affect the eater in curious ways. The biscuits with lilac jelly, the lavender tea cookies, and the tea cakes made with nasturtium mayonnaise the Ladies Aid ordered for their meetings once a month gave them the ability to keep secrets. The fried dandelion buds over marigold-petal rice, stuffed pumpkin blossoms, and rose-hip soup ensured that your company would notice only the beauty of your home and never the flaws. Anise hyssop honey butter on toast, angelica candy, and cupcakes with crystallized pansies made children thoughtful. Honeysuckle wine served on the Fourth of July gave you the ability to see in the dark. The nutty flavor of the dip made from hyacinth bulbs made you feel moody and think of the past, and the salads made with chicory and mint had you believing that something good was about to happen, whether it was true or not.
The dinner Claire was catering that night was being hosted by Anna Chapel, the head of the art department at Orion College, who gave a dinner party at the end of every spring semester for her department. Claire had catered these parties for her for the past five years. It was good exposure to get her name out among the university crowd, because they only expected good food with a splash of originality, whereas the people in town who had lived there all their lives came to her to cater affairs with a specific agenda-to get something off your chest and be assured the other person wouldn't speak of it again, to secure a promotion, or to mend a friendship.
First Claire took the jelly and vinegar to the farmers' market on the highway, where she'd rented shelf space at a booth, then she went into town and parked in front of Fred's Gourmet Grocery, formerly Fred's Foods, as it had been called for two generations, before a posher college and touristy crowd started shopping there.
She and Evanelle walked into the market with its creaking hardwood floors. Evanelle headed for the tomatoes, while Claire went to the back to Fred's office.
She knocked once, then opened the door. "Hello, Fred."
Sitting at his father's old desk, he had invoices in front of him, but judging by the way he jumped when Claire opened the door, his mind had been on other things. He immediately stood. "Claire. Good to see you."
"I have those two boxes you ordered."
"Good, good." He grabbed the white blazer hanging on the back of his chair and put it on over his short-sleeved black shirt. He walked out to her van with her and helped her bring the boxes in. "Did, um, did you bring that other thing we talked about?" he asked as they walked to the stockroom.
She smiled slightly and went back outside. A minute later she came back in and handed him the paper bag with a bottle of rose geranium wine in it.
Fred took it, looking embarrassed, then he handed her an envelope with a check in it. The act was completely innocuous, because he always gave her a check when she delivered her jelly and vinegar, but this check was a full ten times what his normal check to her was. And the envelope was brighter, as if filled with lightning bugs, lit by his hope.
"Thank you, Fred. I'll see you next month."
"Right. Bye, Claire."
Reading Group Guide
The Waverleys are a curious family to the townspeople of Bascom, North Carolina. Legend has it that their feisty apple tree is enchanted, and that eating its fruit can show you the future. But no one foresaw how two very different sisters would spring from the same family roots.
Claire has never let go of her connection to family and lives alone in the old Waverley home, running a successful catering company and using ingredients from her magical garden.
It has been ten years since Sydney Waverley abandoned the family she was so ashamed of, and now she’s back–with a daughter and a suitcase packed with secrets. Healing the wounds of the past will take more than Claire’s potent hyacinth wine, but the two sisters soon realize that they’re more alike than either could have imagined.
From a bright new author in fiction, Garden Spells is a tale about how the strength of family ties can be as inexplicable as magic itself. The following questions are intended to enhance your discussion of this captivating novel.
1. Could you be persuaded that certain plants have powers, as Claire describes and uses them? If you believed you possessed the magical powers that Claire has inherited, how would you use them? What’s the first thing you would do?
2. Which of the sisters resonates with you personally? Claire believes everything–everyone–is temporary. She clings to home and makes herself content. Sydney’s philosophy is “you can’t hold on to everything,” and so has a history of very temporary, noncommittal relationships. Are their outlooks two sides of the same coin? What is the nature of the shift that occurs for each of them?
3. Sydney does what she feels she has to do in running with her daughter. What is your reaction to her dilemma, and her choice?
4. Sydney uses her birth name, Waverley, when she returns to her hometown, after hating the name all her life; she even gives her own daughter the Waverley surname. Why do you think she does this?
5. Do you relate to Emma’s passion for Hunter John? Is it possible for someone else to manipulate personal circumstances as Emma and her mother do?
6. How do you explain Claire’s attraction-repulsion to Tyler? Why do you think Claire sees violet sparks hovering around him the first time she meets him? What makes her eventually realize they are destined to be together?
7. Do you think a child can have the kind of insight and sensitivity that Bay demonstrates? Could a man have it? If not, why?
8. The four Waverley women in this novel (Claire, Sydney, Bay, Evanelle) have special gifts. Which of the four gifts would you like to have yourself? Why?
9. Fred observes, “You are who you are, whether you like it or not, so why not like it?” How does this statement relate to the different characters in the book?
10. Claire thinks, “When you tell a secret to someone, embarrassing or not, it forms a connection. That person means something to you simply by virtue of what he knows.” Do you agree with this? Can a secret be a positive thing? A negative thing?
11. Which character changes the most over the course of the book? What does he or she learn? What had to take place in order for this to happen?
12. Do you consider this to be a “southern” novel? Besides its setting, what characteristics make it so?
13. If you knew that biting into a Waverley apple would reveal your future… would you bite? Why or why not?