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In her latest enchanting novel, New York Times bestselling author Sarah Addison Allen invites you to a quirky little Southern town with more magic than a full Carolina moon. Here two very different women discover how to find their place in the world—no matter how out of place they feel.
Emily Benedict came to Mullaby, North Carolina, hoping to solve at least some of the riddles surrounding her mother’s life. Such as, why did Dulcie Shelby leave her hometown so suddenly? And why did she vow never to return? But the moment Emily enters the house where her mother grew up and meets the grandfather she never knew—a reclusive, real-life gentle giant—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 bakes hope in the form of cakes.
Everyone in Mullaby adores Julia Winterson’s cakes—which is a good thing, because Julia can’t seem to stop baking them. She offers them to satisfy the town’s sweet tooth but also in the hope of rekindling the love she fears might be lost forever. Flour, eggs, milk, and sugar.... Baking is the only language the proud but vulnerable Julia has to communicate what is truly in her heart. But is it enough to call back to her those she’s hurt in the past?
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.
1. The legend of the Mullaby lights is front and center in this story. How do legends come to pass? 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 one another. 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 or romance would be possible if they were older?
5. Julia takes an immediate liking to Emily, assuming a motherly role. What do you think drews 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 the ones rehabilitating you? Furthermore, do you think the relationship between Emily and Julia helped open Julia up 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 with her mother, Vance with his wife and daughter, and Julia with 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 a multitude of 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 loveable giant. She is completely taken aback when she first sees him. Have you ever met someone who did not meet your expectations at all? How so? Much the same, 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?
Garden Spells didn't start out as a magical novel," writes Sarah Addison Allen. "It was supposed to be a simple story about two sisters reconnecting after many years. But then the apple tree started throwing apples and the story took on a life of its own... and my life hasn't been the same since."
North Carolina novelist Sarah Addison Allen brings the full flavor of her southern upbringing to bear on her fiction—a captivating blend of fairy tale magic, heartwarming romance, and small-town sensibility.
Born and raised in Asheville, in the heart of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Allen grew up with a love of books and an appreciation of good food (she credits her journalist father for the former and her mother, a fabulous cook, for the latter). In college, she majored in literature—because, as she puts it, "I thought it was amazing that I could get a diploma just for reading fiction. It was like being able to major in eating chocolate."
After graduation in 1994, Allen began writing seriously. She sold a few stories and penned romances for Harlequin under the pen name Katie Gallagher; but her big break occurred in 2007 with the publication of her first mainstream novel, Garden Spells, a modern-day fairy tale about an enchanted apple tree and the family of North Carolina women who tend it. Booklist called Allen's accomplished debut "spellbindingly charming," and the novel became a BookSense pick and a Barnes & Noble Recommends selection.
Since then, Allen has continued to serve heaping helpings of the fantastic and the familiar in fiction she describes as "Southern-fried magic realism." Clearly, it's a recipe readers are happy to eat up as fast as she can dish it out.
From a 2007 Barnes and Noble interview:
• I love food. The comforting and sensual nature of food always seems to find its way into what I write. Garden Spells involves edible flowers. My book out in 2008 involves southern and rural candies. Book three, barbeque. But, you know what? I'm a horrible cook.
• In college I worked for a catalog company, taking orders over the phone. Occasionally celebrities would call in their own orders. My brush with celebrity? I took Bob Barker's order.
• I was a Star Wars fanatic when I was a kid. I have the closet full of memorabilia to prove it — action figures, trading cards, comic books, notebooks with ‘Mrs. Mark Hamill' written all over the pages. I can't believe I just admitted that.
• While I was writing this, a hummingbird came to check out the trumpet vine outside my open window. I stopped typing and sat very still, mesmerized, my hands frozen on the keys, until it flew away. I looked back to my computer and ten minutes had passed in a flash.
• I love being a writer.
• When asked what book most influenced her career as a writer, here is her response:
Every book I've ever read has influenced me in some way. Paddington Bear books and Beverly Cleary in elementary school. Nancy Drew and Judy Blume in middle school. The sci-fi fantasy of my teens. The endless stream of paperback romances I devoured as I got older. Studying world literature and major movements in college. Who I am, what I am, is the culmination of a lifetime of reading, a lifetime of stories. And there are still so many more books to read. I'm a work in progress. (Author bio from Barmes & Noble.)