Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Enchanting World of Sarah Addison Allen

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Books that randomly appear.  An apple tree that promises to show you the most important moment in your life.  Promises that cannot be broken.  Women whose emotions can leave tangible traces on objects. A lone peach tree that guards an untimely end. Alligators with secrets. Families whose magical tendencies are the talk of the town.  Seven books, seven different sets of magic, hopes, dreams, and perseverance to overcome obstacles grace the novels written by American author, Sarah Addison Allen.  With five stand-alone books (The Sugar Queen (2008), The Girl Who Chased the Moon (2010), The Peach Keeper (2011), and Lost Lake (2014)), and a budding series stemming from her debut novel (Garden Spells (2007) and First Frost (Jan. 2015)), Allen has managed to infuse magic and mysticism in her novels about everyday people and the lives they lead.  However, these are not fantasy novels.  They are novels about life, love, loss, and the eccentricities in people that make humanity diverse and wonderful.  Allen's work is delightful simply because the reader can be enchanted by the magic and beauty of life and its nuances.

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Her debut novel, Garden Spells, remains her most popular novel.  The novel centers around the Waverly family, a quirky, tiny family unit that has survived heartache, stigmatization, passion, and depression.  Infused with the subtle magical abilities that all of Allen's characters have, the Waverlys have struggled to find their place in the community and even in their own family.  Allen captivates the reader with her characters: Claire Waverly is a caterer who has a renowned 'magic' touch when it comes to food; Sydney Waverly is a lost soul, struggling to find beauty in life and herself.  The story swirls around the two sisters, accompanied by relatives, friends, and enemies who are also trying to find themselves.  Seven years later, Allen picks their story back up in First Frost (due out January 20, 2015).  Once again, the reader will find that the Waverly sisters are once again struggling to find their place in the world, as well as finding out where exactly their 'powers' fit into the mix.  Allen introduces new characters, both to the Waverly family fold and to their community.  The new novel centers mostly around Bay, Sydney's daughter, who was a small child in the first book.  Bay is struggling to come to terms with her gift and with her family's quirky reputation in the community. First Frost has a very different tone than Garden Spells, with the desperately lost feeling of many of the characters having been settled in Garden Spells.  There are several forces that have disrupted the quiet lives of the Waverlys, throwing their settled, happy lives back into confusion and self-doubt.  It is a quintessential coming-of-age novel; however, Allen takes it a step further and delves into the coming of age into middle age.  Both Claire and Sydney are hitting middle age blahs while Bay is coming into turbulent teenage hood.  Allen delicately parallels the self searches these women undergo as they try to adapt to their new life phases.  While not as powerful as Garden Spells (one of the most refreshing novels I have ever read), First Frost is a fun read, and makes you review your own views on age and adapting to change.

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My personal favorite is The Sugar Queen.  Allen's second novel, a stand alone, The Sugar Queen revolves around Josie Cirini, a sweets loving, painfully shy woman, whose domineering mother (not to mention her own insecurities) keep her from living life to the fullest.  To me, this novel is Allen at her best.  The ancillary characters keep the story moving forward, and Allen gives us glimpses (both brief and extended) into their lives, making them an integral part of the novel.  It is set during the winter time at a mountain resort town; the chilly background provides a stark contrast to the fiery emotions that drive the characters towards a satisfying conclusion.  The Sugar Queen is truly a novel about forgiveness, whether it is the characters forgiving others or mainly, themselves.  Allen illustrates how punishing oneself for misdeeds past and present can do nothing but prolong the misery in our lives.  The magic in this novel is subtle but alluring.  Each character has a trait that impacts their lives and how they interact with the world.

All of Allen's works have the same underlying character themes.  Her main characters, first and foremost, are women.  Allen beautifully depicts women who have or are trying to make their way in the world, despite their pasts, their reputations, and whatever else has plagued them.  All of her female characters are acutely aware of themselves, almost to a fault.  However, they do not shy away from their eccentricities or personalities; they embrace them and find lives, careers, friends, and partners that best accentuate who they are as women.  Allen does not write about women who shy away from life or who accept their fate.  Her novels ultimately are about strong women and the magic that comes from accepting yourself.

These are not huge books, yet Allen manages to pack in a novel that will leave you wondering about the characters.  Allen has a simple writing style.  She uses a clipped, yet flowery prose for her writing.  The descriptions are precise, yet thorough.  Nevertheless, she manages to convey powerful lessons in her novels.  The quick paced storytelling, the inter-generational stories that Allen manages to weave together, and the dynamic characters is what makes Allen one of my favorite authors.  There is romance, but nothing ridiculous or bawdy; just plain love, with characters radiating their happiness and contentment.  There is mystery to a certain degree; mysteries that unravel as the characters find out more about themselves and their loved ones.  From Garden Spells to the highly anticipated First Frost, Allen has created non-stop beauty and happiness in her novels.  Her memorable characters is what places her above most "chick lit" dramas; they are easy to relate to and, by the end, you are immersed in their lives.  It is the simple things in life and in yourself that Allen makes magical.  It is the characters' interactions with themselves, their self-awareness to a fault and their peaceful, but determined self-acceptance, that make Allen's works worth reading.

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Thanks to St. Martin's Press for my ARC!  

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