Having read and loved two of Sarah Addison Allen’s previous novels, Garden Spells and The Girl Who Chased the Moon, I was really looking forward to reading this one, as well. I have a soft spot for Southern writers who feel authentic in the way they depict the South that I grew up in–one reason why I love Joshilyn Jackson’s books.
This book’s setting is the small town of Walls of Water, North Carolina, which is in an area of the Blue Ridge Mountains frequented by hikers and outdoorsy types. The main character, Willa (to add to the alliteration) grew up in Walls of Water, where she gained a reputation for being the high school “Joker”, having played a series of pranks. Her family is an old and respected one in the community, although their circumstances were reduced when her great-grandfather lost his money and her grandmother had a child out of wedlock–her dad.
The other well-known, and still well-off, family in the story are the Osgoods. Paxton and Colin Osgood are twins who went to school with Willa, although they were never really close to her. Paxton spends her days running a charitable foundation and playing the perfect society miss, while secretly harboring feelings for the former class “freak” and current town dentist, Sebastian, of whose sexual orientation she is unsure. Colin is a landscape architect who was inspired by Willa’s pranks in high school and spends his life being independant and daring (presumably) in New York. Colin returns to Walls of Water to help his sister Paxton with the final stages of the restoration of a local historic home–which just happens to have belonged to Willa’s family.
So far so good? As you can see, the story is very much character-driven. Yes, there is a plot going on about the two families’ histories and a body that is dug up in the front yard of the house during the course of the restoration, but basically it’s the characters and their evolution (or lack thereof) that Addison Allen focuses on. The “mystery” of who killed the man and any residual suspense that might have been caused by this problem are never really developed.
I like good characters, and I will forgive a weak plot if I can have some memorable characters in exchange, but unfortunately the book never really delivers on either count. I never got a feel for who Willa really was–she never felt like the Joker to me, and yet her current incarnation as responsible business owner felt weak, too. Colin, her love interest, never really went anywhere either, and their dialogue often felt forced. He says Willa inspired him to rebel against his high school image as the Stick Man, but he doesn’t actually do anything daring that I can see, except for not staying in Walls of Water as his family expects him to and representing their family as a member of the community.
The two characters who I did enjoy more were Paxton and Sebastian. There was real chemistry between them, and the mystery surrounding Sebastian’s sexuality made for an interesting twist. However, I found it hard to believe that they had become such close friends in such a short period of time (after having nothing to do with one another in high school), and yet as attentive as Sebastian is, he never makes a move on Paxton? I don’t want to give away the ending of the novel, but for me it really didn’t fit with what we had seen of Sebastian so far in the book…I liked the resolution, but I didn’t really believe in it.
As with Addison Allen’s other novels, there are touches of magical realism throughout the book, unexplained phenomena that really added to the atmosphere of her other books but, to me, fall flat in this one. And although certain elements of the setting were evocative (like the nearby forest and the mist), the setting never came together for me as a cohesive whole. I didn’t get a real feel for the town and its people as a group.
Although I was pretty disappointed in this book, I’s still like to read other books by Sarah Addison Allen, as hopefully this was just the lowpoint in an otherwise enjoyable body of work.
P.S. If you’re wondering what the title of the book has to do with the story, I’m still wondering that, too.
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