Book Review: Fiction
“The Girl Who Chased the Moon”
By Sarah Addison Allen
Bantam Books, $25, 288 pages
By Gina Webb
“Welcome to Mullaby, North Carolina. Home of ghost lights, giants, and jewelry thieves,” newcomer Emily Benedict tells herself on her first night in the sleepy, Southern town.
Other than that, life in Mullaby looks like it’s going to be pretty predictable.
Every morning, Emily’s grandfather Vance Shelby — who happens to be 8 feet tall — eats breakfast at J’s Barbecue, where Julia Winterson, the new owner, bakes a daily cake for her customers. Every night, the Coffey family shuts itself up in the house — the members have never been seen out at night that anyone can remember. During the past year and a half, Sawyer Alexander, Julia’s old high school flame, has eaten dinner with Julia’s landlady every Thursday, mainly to catch sight of Julia.
When teenager Emily arrives in town, she hopes to learn more about her mother, Dulcie, who grew up there. Shy, and plagued by panic attacks, Emily accepts that her grandfather is a little, well, different. She takes it in stride the way the pattern of the wallpaper in her mother’s old bedroom changes from day to day and sometimes smells like lilacs. The way mysterious white lights sparkle at night in the woods behind her grandfather’s house. The fact that her missing jewelry reappears “where it hadn’t been just minutes ago.”
This sort of Mary Poppins-style magic — light, friendly and mixed into everyday events — is Asheville native Sarah Addison Allen’s stock in trade. In her best-selling “Garden Spells,” a caterer made magical dishes from the flowers that grew near an enchanted apple tree. Her characters’ special powers are limited to good witchery: Making people feel better or helping them find things they’ve always needed. In “The Girl Who Chased the Moon,” a single whiff of the cakes that Julia bakes has an unexpected affect on people, making them dream of better days, calling them home.
Julia, Dulcie’s former high school classmate, is one of the first people Emily talks to about her mother. Julia gently changes the subject. On her second day in town, Emily meets young Win Coffey, who hints that Dulcie did something unforgivable to his uncle — but won’t say anything more. When Emily presses her grandfather, he admits that Dulcie took “great pleasure in teasing people who didn’t have as much as she did.” Julia, he says, was a frequent target.
Emily is shocked: How could her mom, “the most politically correct person on the planet — an activist, an environmentalist, a crusader for the underdog,” have ever hurt anyone?
There’s something no one’s telling her — then again, everyone in Mullaby seems to be hiding something. Especially Julia, with her sugary confections.
We soon learn that Julia’s teen years could easily have led to a Mullaby high school shooting.
Victim of a less-than-ideal home life, the troubled Julia — with her dyed pink hair and “eyeliner so thick and black that she’d looked bruised” — was a magnet for vicious teasing by Dulcie Shelby’s mean-girl clique. Relief came in the form of Sawyer, the “perfect” boy who loved her for herself — then dumped her after one night. Julia still hides the scars of those miserable years under long sleeves.
Despite her plan to leave Mullaby after making enough money to move back north and open her own bakery, Julia’s resolve is weakening. For one thing, Sawyer won’t give up his dream of rekindling their romance. For another, the homesickness she’s felt for the past 20 years seems to be disappearing.
The story comes to a head when Emily discovers that Dulcie, too, may have hidden an inner sorrow no one knew about, one that changes everything about her relationship with the Coffey family — especially their fear of coming out at night.
Frothy as a cupcake and just as easy to devour in one sitting, “The Girl Who Chased the Moon” — like Julia — has a darker interior that offsets its predictable romances and Pleasantville stage set.