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First Frost
by Sarah Addison Allen
St. Martins Press, $25.99 291pp
Published: January 2015

A new story from my very favorite mainstream writer is like getting chocolate on my birthday.  An expected and yet longed-for treat.

This is the first time Ms. Allen has returned to her characters; this story takes place with the same people in her very first book “Garden Spells.”  It is not a sequel, it is a stand-alone story; however, you will savor the characters much more if you take time to read “Garden Spells” first.  And I promise you won’t be disappointed if you appreciate strong character-driven stories with a bit of whimsy. 

It has been several years since the events of the first book and Claire has discovered that her candy is a bigger marketing success than her catering business which she has since abandoned – to the sorrow of her family.  Sydney has a successful hair salon and her daughter, Bay, is trying to navigate the treacherous waters of high school.  Evanelle is in the story as well, still hanging in there.  Claire, Sydney and Bay are all anticipating the first frost of the season with varying amounts of gladness and trepidation.  First frost is a significant day for the Waverleys as that is the day that the apple tree blooms…and blooms, and blooms.  Traditionally, it is also a time for figuring out issues and all three women have issues. 

Bay’s Waverly gift is to know where things and people belong.  And when she meets Josh at school, she knows instantly that he belongs with her.  Being a rather direct sort of person, Bay immediately tells him in a note.  Being a self-conscious teenager, he doesn’t know how to react so avoids Bay.  Bay knows better than to push even though it is crystal clear to her that Josh is unhappy with his life; so she just waits.  Unfortunately, the first time they actually have a conversation her mother discovers that she is seeing a Matteson and she finds herself grounded forever with no idea why.

Sydney is happy with her successful salon but feels a little like something is missing.  She’s worried about her daughter being hurt the same way she was so long ago and may be over-compensating.  She’s trying to help a young single mother by giving her a job in the salon but feels helpless to actually effect a change – the girl takes advantage, neglects her child, and steals from the till.

Claire loves making her candy – at first – but she is feeling that there should be more in her life than just the candymaking that takes all of her time and energy.  She’s also questioning the validity of her gift since she was forced to do without the flower essences from her garden.  There simply weren’t enough flowers to keep up with the demand; and yet, no one seemed to be able to tell the difference.  Does that make her less of a Waverly? Being a self-reliant sort of woman, she keeps these concerns to herself rather than asking for help from her family. These worries put her in a vulnerable position when she is approached by a mysterious man who claims to have known her deceased mother and have information that will affect Claire deeply.  And he wants money to keep quiet.

Meanwhile, the mysterious gentleman is seen about town asking questions about Claire.  His presence has an indirect effect on the woman working in the inn where he stays.  And when he finally confronts Claire, his news sets her adrift – questioning all she thought she knew about herself.

There is no great evil or conflict in Ms. Allen’s stories.  They are simply stories about people, their hearts, and their dreams.  She writes with an eye towards what’s inside a person, and outside events are only there to move the story and the characters along.  Simple they might be, but powerful and affecting they are.  Her characters are charming and yet not that different from any of us.  They might be just ordinary stories except for that pesky apple tree and the whimsy she imbues in her story.  They are comforting stories and they always uplift me or amuse me or both.  I might be just a touch biased but I think these books are just perfect; and I pray to all the gods that Ms. Allen has a long and fruitful life sharing many more of these stories with us. ~~ Catherine Book

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