First Frost by Sarah Addison Allen (2014, St. Martin’s Press)
I was initially attracted to this bargain bin paperback’s cover image of a frosted rosy apple on weathered barn board and the synopsis on the back cover. In a modern yet genteel North Carolina college town of rambling, turreted old Queen Anne houses, Hallowe’en and the first frost of autumn approach. A family of eccentric women who handcraft magical confections from their herb garden is threatened by the ominous arrival of a mysterious stranger who may be every bit as powerful as the women themselves. When I read the author’s dedication, in which she refers to her work as ‘a strange little garden book’; I was pretty sure I was in for a good ride. Sold!
I loved this novel from the very first page. The story immediately brought to mind Practical Magic, Alice Hoffman’s 1995 book and the 1998 film starring Nicole Kidman and Sandra Bullock. Like that story, the Waverley women of First Frost have peculiar “gifts” which, in the eyes of the townspeople, mark them as odd and suspicious. Their magic is never malevolent, however, and each woman has her own way of using – or denying – her power. Their surroundings are also imbued with quirky magic: doors lock out those lacking inner peace, rooms spontaneously tidy themselves, and an ancient tree angrily lobs apples when it feels neglected. The main character, a teenaged daughter named Bay, has her own angst to deal with and choices to make. Will she accept her gift, or will she reject what she knows to be right and live to regret it? I was happy to find that this book is not a pale imitation of Practical Magic, but a well-crafted tale that follows its own lavender-lined path.
This story is rooted in the garden and kitchen, and is peppered with food imagery and exquisite description appealing to all the senses. Allen writes, “Simmering soup on a cold day was like filling a house with cotton batting.” Fallen leaves “looked like the world was covered in a cobbler crust of brown sugar and cinnamon.” And people’s moods are expressed in olfactory auras: the silvery-grey smoke of the mysterious stranger, and aloof Bay who “smelled like cold air and roses.” Insightful characters and a tight plotline kept me reading, and I was enchanted.
A bonus book-club section at the end of the novel offers opportunities for discussion, an epilogue following up on some secondary characters, and a few recipes featured in the story. There it’s revealed that First Frost is a sequel to Allen’s 1997 work, Garden Spells, which deals with the earlier years of the two oldest Waverley sisters. I’m conjuring it up on Amazon right now!
April Snow by Lillian Budd (1951, J.B. Lippincott Co.)
I’m also re-reading this old classic, which is set on a snowy, windswept island in 19th century Sweden. I first read April Snow as a teenager and was drawn to the resolute tenacity of its main character, a peasant woman named Sigrid. Life is hard on her isolated farm, and her lazy, selfish husband’s affections wane with the birth of each of their eleven children. In quiet rebellion, Sigrid harnesses her vibrant creativity, faith and hope to cope with the rigors of farm life and a loveless marriage, all the while staying true to her heritage. Although the prose is simple and rather stilted at times, this novel is a fascinating insight into Swedish tradition and culture, and, if you can snag a copy, is well worth a read.