Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Book Review: The Witch of Belladonna Bay

By Jami Deise

There have always been stories about witches. Even the Bible commands its followers not to allow a sorceress to live. It’s not surprising that tales of magical women were prevalent in the days before science explained that germs cause disease, that weather patterns cause drought and dead crops, that a chemical imbalance causes mental illness, not devil possession. And yet, books about witches and wizards and warlocks remain popular with fans of all ages. The first witch book I ever loved was “Little Witch,” about the neglected daughter of an evil witch. (Apparently it’s celebrating its 60th anniversary this year. I read it in the first grade. Maybe I’m older than I thought.) There’s "Harry Potter" for the middle graders; Anne Rice for adults. What explains this popularity among all ages? Perhaps it’s the yearning we all have for more power and control in our lives. After all, if we can make a spoon fly across the room, we can make that man love us. We can make our grandmother’s nagging cough go away. And we can make that girl very, very sorry she ever looked twice at our boyfriend.

Of course, not everyone wants that power. Some people even run away from it. Which is why Bronwyn “Wyn” Whalen, one of the heroines of Suzanne Palmieri’s novel The Witch ofBelladonna Bay, has spent the past fourteen years living in New York City, thousands of miles from her family home in Magnolia Creek, Alabama, and just as far from the memories and circumstances that led her to take off in the middle of the night. Bronwyn’s mother Naomi had “the shine,” and she smoked opium to kill her magic. Bronwyn had it too, which is why she left the day after her mother died – the day after Bronwyn told her to die. She left her alcoholic father Jackson, vulnerable younger brother Paddy, best friend Lottie and the love of her life – Lottie’s adopted brother Grant. And it’s those people who bring her back – Paddy has been arrested for murdering Lottie and her son Jamie (although Jamie’s body hasn’t yet been found). And Paddy has a daughter, Byrd, eleven years old and running wild, who was Jamie’s best friend and who has magic inside her that makes Bronwyn’s own gifts pale by comparison. But when Paddy tells Bronwyn that his girl’s magic is evil – that he confessed to murder because he knows Byrd killed them herself – Bronwyn needs to find that part of herself she’s suppressed for so many years in order to find out the truth. Even Byrd herself fears she may have killed the two in a blackout, but the girl knows one thing for certain – now that Aunt Wyn is here, she is never going to let her go again.

The Witch of Belladonna Bay is a beignet of a book – hot, soft, sweet, and sticky. Its Alabama locale seeps out of every page, making the magic feel like just another part of the scenery, like the weeping willow trees or the way the moon looks on a summer night, shimmery and yellow. And yet, the story and characters are more women’s fiction than paranormal. The book stresses relationships, family and forgiveness over ESP and tarot card readings, and will appeal to fans to Kathryn Stockett as well as fans of Anne Rice.

I did have two small quibbles with the book. One, the resolution of the mystery was much darker than I’d expected, and I didn’t think it was supported in the text. Even when the “who done it” part of the story isn’t the strongest thread in the book, readers like to figure out clues on their own and come to their own conclusions. Palmieri did not give enough evidence for this to happen. Similarly, Lottie and Jamie never come across as fully realized characters. Since half the book takes place in Byrd’s point of view, and since Byrd and Jamie were inseparable, Lottie and her son could have easily been fleshed out more fully than just two murder victims, which would have also provided more clues for the “who done it.”

Despite those shortcomings, the book weaves a spell with its strong characters, sense of place, and seductive magic. Readers will not make the same decision that Bronwyn made fourteen years ago – now that they’d been introduced to Magnolia Creek, they’ll never want to leave. 

Thanks to BookSparks for the book in exchange for an honest review.

1 comment:

Janine said...

It sounds like this book will be really interesting. Thanks for the review.