Emily Benedict has come to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew, she realizes that mysteries aren’t solved in Mullaby, they’re a way of life: Here are rooms where the wallpaper changes to suit your mood. Unexplained lights skip across the yard at midnight. And a neighbor, Julia Winterson, bakes hope in the form of cakes, not only wishing to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also dreaming of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Can a hummingbird cake really bring back a lost love? Is there really a ghost dancing in Emily’s backyard? The answers are never what you expect. But in this town of lovable misfits, the unexpected fits right in.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Hometown:Asheville, North Carolina
Place of Birth:Asheville, North Carolina
Education:B.A. in Literature, 1994
Read an Excerpt
It took a moment for Emily to realize the car had come to a stop. She looked up from her charm bracelet, which she’d been worrying in slow circles around her wrist, and stared out the window. The two giant oaks in the front yard looked like flustered ladies caught mid-curtsy, their starched green leaf-dresses swaying in the wind.
“This is it?” she asked the taxi driver.
“Six Shelby Road. Mullaby. This is it.”
Emily hesitated, then paid him and got out. The air outside was tomato-sweet and hickory-smoked, all at once delicious and strange. It automatically made her touch her tongue to her lips. It was dusk, but the streetlights weren’t on yet. She was taken aback by how quiet everything was. It suddenly made her head feel light. No street sounds. No kids playing. No music or television. There was this sensation of otherworldliness, like she’d traveled some impossible distance.
She looked around the neighborhood while the taxi driver took her two overstuffed duffel bags out of the trunk. The street consisted of large old homes, most of which were showpieces in true old-movie Southern fashion with their elaborate trim work and painted porches.
The driver set her bags on the sidewalk beside her, nodded, then got behind the wheel and drove off.
Emily watched him disappear. She tucked back some hair that had fallen out of her short ponytail, then grabbed the handles of the duffel bags. She dragged them behind her as she followed the walkway from the sidewalk, through the yard and under the canopy of fat trees. It grew dark and cold under the trees, so she picked up her pace. But when she emerged from under the canopy on the other side, she stopped short at the sight before her.
The house looked nothing like the rest of the houses in the neighborhood.
It had probably been an opulent white at one time, but now it was gray, and its Gothic Revival pointed-arch windows were dusty and opaque. It was outrageously flaunting its age, spitting paint chips and old roofing shingles into the yard. There was a large wraparound porch on the first floor, the roof of which served as a balcony for the second floor, and years of crumbling oak leaves were covering both. If not for the single clear path formed by use up the center of the steps, it would have looked like no one lived there.
This was where her mother grew up?
She could feel her arms trembling, which she told herself was from the weight of the bags. She walked up the steps to the porch, dragging the duffel bags and a good many leaves with her. She set the bags down and walked to the door, then knocked once.
She tried again.
She tucked her hair back again, then looked behind her as if to find an answer. She turned back and opened the rusty screen door and called into the house, “Hello?” The space sounded hollow.
She entered cautiously. No lights were on, but the last sunlight of the day was coughing through the dining room windows, directly to her left. The dining room furniture was dark and rich and ornate, but it seemed incredibly large to her, as if made for a giant. To her right was obviously another room, but there was an accordion door closing off the archway. Straight in front of her was a hallway leading to the kitchen and a wide staircase leading to the second story. She went to the base of the stairs and called up, “Hello?”
At that moment, the accordion door flew open and Emily jumped back. An elderly man with coin-silver hair walked out, ducking under the archway to avoid hitting his head. He was fantastically tall and walked with a rigid gait, his legs like stilts. He seemed badly constructed, like a skyscraper made of soft wood instead of concrete. He looked like he could splinter at any moment.
“You’re finally here. I was getting worried.” His fluid Southern voice was what she remembered from their first and only phone conversation a week ago, but he was nothing like she expected.
She craned her neck back to look up at him. “Vance Shelby?”
He nodded. He seemed afraid of her. It flustered her that someone this tall would be afraid of anything, and she suddenly found herself monitoring her movements, not wanting to do anything to startle him.
She slowly held out her hand. “Hi, I’m Emily.”
He smiled. Then his smile turned into a laugh, which was an ashy roar, like a large fire. Her hand completely disappeared in his when he shook it. “I know who you are, child. You look just like your mother when she was your age.” His smile faded as quickly as it had appeared. He dropped his hand, then looked around awkwardly. “Where are your suitcases?”
“I left them on the porch.”
There was a short silence. Neither of them had known the other existed until recently. How could they have run out of things to say already? There was so much she wanted to know. “Well,” he finally said, “you can do what you want upstairs—it’s all yours. I can’t get up there anymore. Arthritis in my hips and knees. This is my room now.” He pointed to the accordion door. “You can choose any room you want, but your mother’s old room was the last one on the right. Tell me what the wallpaper looks like when you walk in. I’d like to know.”
“Thank you. I will,” she said as he turned and walked away from her, toward the kitchen, his steps loud in his wondrously large shoes.
Emily watched him go, confused. That was it?
She went to the porch and dragged her bags in. Upstairs, she found a long hallway that smelled woolly and tight. There were six doors. She walked down the hall, the scraping of her duffel bags magnified in the hardwood silence.
Once she reached the last door on the right, she dropped her duffel bags and reached to the inside wall for the light switch. The first thing she noticed when the light popped on was that the wallpaper had rows and rows of tiny lilacs on it, like scratch-and-sniff paper, and the room actually smelled a little like lilacs. There was a four-poster bed against the wall, the torn, gauzy remnants of what had once been a canopy now hanging off the posts like maypoles.
There was a white trunk at the foot of the bed. The name Dulcie, Emily’s mother’s name, was carved in it in swirly letters. As she walked by it, she ran her hand over the top of the trunk and her fingertips came away with puffs of dust. Underneath the age, like looking though a layer of ice, there was a distinct impression of privilege to this room.
It made no sense. This room looked nothing like her mother.
She opened the set of French doors and stepped out onto the balcony, crunching into dried oak leaves that were ankle-deep. Everything had felt so precarious since her mother’s death, like she was walking on a bridge made of paper. When she’d left Boston, it had been with a sense of hope, like coming here was going to make everything okay. She’d actually been comforted by the thought of falling back into a cradle of her mother’s youth, of bonding with the grandfather she hadn’t known she had.
Instead, the lonely strangeness of this place mocked her.
This didn’t feel like home.
She reached to touch her charm bracelet for comfort, but felt only bare skin. She lifted her wrist, startled.
The bracelet was gone.
She looked down, then around. She frantically kicked the leaves on the balcony, trying to find it. She rushed back into the room and dragged her bags in, thinking maybe the bracelet had caught on one of them and slipped inside. She tossed her clothes out of them and accidentally dropped her laptop, which she’d wrapped in her white winter coat.
But it wasn’t anywhere. She ran out of the room and down the stairs, then she banged out of the front door. It was so dark under the canopy of trees now that she had to slow down until the light from the streetlights penetrated, then she ran to the sidewalk.
After ten minutes of searching, she realized that either she had dropped it on the sidewalk and someone had already taken it, or it had fallen out in the cab when she was toying with it and it was now on its way back to Raleigh—where the cab had picked her up at the bus station.
The bracelet had belonged to her mother. Dulcie had loved it—loved the crescent moon charm in particular. That charm had been worn thin by the many times Dulcie had rubbed it while in one of her faraway moods.
Emily walked slowly back into the house. She couldn’t believe she’d lost it.
Reading Group Guide
1. The legend of the Mullaby lights is front and center in this story. How do legends come to exist? What do they say about a culture or community? Can you imagine something like this happening in your town? Have you ever had a haunting or whimsical experience that led you to a valuable discovery?
2. In Mullaby, barbecue is a celebratory food, meant to be shared. It brings people together. On the other hand, for Julia, cake-baking is a solitary activity, a ceremony she performs alone to feel connected to someone she has lost. Why do you think food is so central to this story? What kind of meaning can cooking, baking, and food take on? What do they mean to you? What kind of food is your city/state known for?
3. Julia finds that baking cakes is the only way she can comfortably express what is truly going on in her heart. What hobby or talent allows you to reveal yourself more clearly to others? Is there something specific about you or something you are good at that you feel draws others to you?
4. From the moment they meet, Win and Emily seem unavoidably drawn to each other. What do you think is the cause of this connection, and why does the bond between them grow so quickly? Do you think that this kind of romance would be possible if they were older?
5. Julia takes an immediate liking to Emily, assuming a motherly role. What do you think draws Julia to Emily? Could it be that Julia needed Emily just as much as Emily needed Julia? Have you ever taken a nurturing stance in someone else’s life only to find that they were truly rehabilitating you? Furthermore, do you think the relationship between Emily and Julia helped open Julia to Sawyer? If so, how?
6. Despite the fact that Sawyer mistreated Julia in a painful way, she ultimately forgives him. Do you think that Sawyer deserved Julia’s forgiveness? Do you think that you would forgive someone who had abandoned you in the same way? Do you think that there are limits on what a person can forgive?
7. In the story, we see different characters mourning the loss of loved ones (Emily her mother, Vance his wife and daughter, and Julia her daughter and father). What are the different ways these characters cope with their losses? What do you think their coping mechanisms say about who they are?
8. Julia only moves back to Mullaby under the self-enforced condition that she will leave in two years. Why do you think she returned to Mullaby to save her father’s restaurant when their relationship had been so tenuous? Other than Sawyer, what persuades her to stay in her hometown?
9. Emily has one view of her mother, while the town has a very different view. And Grandpa Vance has yet another understanding. Who is/was the real Dulcie? Do you believe a person can truly change? How might Emily’s life have been different if she had known the truth of her mother’s past before coming to Mullaby?
10. Many people in Mullaby could be considered misfits. From the most prominent family in town to Julia and Vance, there are many characters who have the experience of not fitting in. How does this affect their lives? How do some manage to use this to their advantage while others seem to suffer for it? What does this say about the power of belonging? Why do many people, particularly young people, feel the need to belong while others are determined to stand out? Which kind of person are you?
11. Emily’s grandfather is a lovable giant. She is completely taken aback when she first sees him. Have you ever met someone who did not meet your expectations at all? In what way(s)? In much the same way, Julia and Stella’s friendship seems like an unlikely pairing. What do you think they gain from their differences? What do you gain from the opposites in your life?
12. At the end of the story, when Vance reveals the truth behind Dulcie’s motivations for the midnight show in the park,
Emily is at first incredulous that he has kept this secret for so long. Why do you think he took so long to reveal this? Do you think it was right of him to allow the town to think of her negatively? What would you have done if Dulcie were your daughter?
13. At the beginning of the novel, Emily discovers the grandfather she didn’t know she had, and at the very end, Maddie embarks on a relationship with Julia. What does this story tell us about our blood connections? Do you think that being related to someone binds you to them whether you know them personally or not? What do you think Julia and Maddie’s relationship will look like five or ten years down the road?