A little magic to spice things up

Sarah Addison Allen, whose novels of magical realism are deservedly popular, makes good use of her North Carolina heritage in her writing. She’s a proud Asheville native: She was born there, spent almost all her childhood there, graduated from UNC Asheville and lives there still in a house she inherited from a great-aunt. Her four novels all have settings that are very like towns in the mountains or Piedmont of North Carolina. Their characters, too, and even the foods they eat – and food is an important element in Allen’s stories – will ring true with people who are familiar with small-town North Carolina.

Asheville, Allen told me in a recent telephone interview, is “a liberal nucleus in conservative area,” and UNC Asheville, known as “the hippie school” of the UNC system, is “very reflective of Asheville.”

That liberal outlook is one of the many things she loves about Asheville, Allen said. Another is the great literary tradition. Her great-aunt, she said, once worked as nurse for F. Scott Fitzgerald on one of his frequent visits to Asheville, where his wife, Zelda, lived her last years in medical care. “He had gout,” Allen said. And her father can remember when Zelda Fitzgerald died in 1947 when Highlands Sanitarium, where she lived, burned. And of course there’s Fitzgerald’s literary contemporary, Thomas Wolfe, whose boarding-house home is now a memorial and historic site in Asheville.

That tradition continues strong in the present, Allen said, citing such authors as John Ehle, the author of The Journey of August King and many other works of fiction and nonfiction; Charles Frazier, the author of Cold Mountain and other novels; and Fred Chappell, poet and novelist, who was born in Canton, N.C., which Allen considers close enough to count as the Asheville area. She cites Chappell’s novel I Am One of You Forever as one of her favorite examples of magical realism.

For those unfamiliar with it, magical realism is a literary style that deals mostly with realistic settings and events, occasionally spiced with people or things that are unexpectedly (and delightfully) magical.

For lots more from my interview with Sarah Addison Allen, read today’s (May 1) Books section in the Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record. You’ll also find there my review of Allen’s newest novel, The Peach Keeper.

Here, I’m briefly reviewing Allen’s third novel, The Girl Who Chased the Moon, which I missed when it came out in hardback in 2010.

By Linda Brinson

THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON. By Sarah Addison Allen. Bantam Books. 285 pages. $15, paperback.

It was only after Emily Benedict’s mother, Dulcie, died that Emily discovered she had a grandfather. Dulcie raised Emily, 17, to devote herself to good causes and projects, and not to “dwell on the unfixable past when there was so much you could do to fix the future.”

Emily has come to the small town of Mullaby, N.C., partly to learn more about her mother’s enigmatic life, and partly because she doesn’t have anywhere better to go

Rather than finding the answers she seeks, Emily discovers more secrets and mysteries, not to mention some eerily magical happenings. Her grandfather, who is incredibly tall, the tallest man she’s ever seen, is curiously distant. And as she meets people who knew her mother when she was growing up, she realizes they have an image of a spoiled young beauty completely different from the earnest, do-gooder mother Emily knew.

Emily is befriended by a neighbor, Julia Winterson, one of those who knew Dulcie years earlier. Julia has her own secrets and painful memories, and she makes it clear to everyone that she’s back in Mullaby only for two years, until she can get her late father’s barbecue restaurant back in good financial standing. Julia loves to cook – is, in fact nearly obsessively passionate about cooking. But she doesn’t intend to waste her talents in Mullaby for long.

Those who are familiar with Allen’s books will know that there will be the possibility of a romance or two. But, like Allen’s other novels, The Girl Who Chased the Moon is anything but predictable. What are those weird lights that dance around the yard outside Emily’s window in the middle of the night? What did her mother really do all those years ago, and why is the family of Win Coffey, the cool boy who seems interested in Emily, so dead set against his having anything to do with her?

For that matter, what does Julia hope to accomplish with all that baking? As she tells Sawyer, a rediscovered friend from high school, she’s long been looking for home and happiness, but, “It’s like chasing the moon – just when I think I have it, it disappears into the horizon.”

Before the book ends – in a delightfully surprising way – some of the magic will be, if not explained, at least a little less mystifying.

This book is delightful to read, full of quirky surprises and people with characters that find – even blunder – their way to where they belong, sometimes in spite of themselves. If that’s not enough, it also has recipes. Hummingbird cake, anyone?

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