Magic Spells

The Wishing Garden
by Christy Yorke
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-58036-1
Christy Yorke's sophomore effort is much stronger than her debut novel, Magic Spells. Her dreamy, lyrical writing style is better integrated with the story, drawing the reader in instead of holding her at bay. But I still stop short of a wholehearted recommendation. Yorke's talent is obvious, but her characterization skills haven't yet caught up with her wordsmith abilities.

The mystical secrets of Tarot cards provide the framework for each chapter of The Wishing Garden. Savannah Dawson makes a living as an advertising executive in San Francisco, but she saves her passion for the tarot readings she offers after hours. When the Eight of Swords, a warning card, appears in her own reading, Savannah knows that trouble is brewing. Sure enough, she soon receives a call from her mother, telling her to come home to Arizona, where her father lies dying of cancer. Savannah packs up her moody teenage daughter, Emma, and reluctantly returns to see her beloved but passive father, Doug, and her hostile mother, Maggie. Savannah always identified with her quiet, cheerful father but received no emotional support at all from Maggie, who seems to revel in her own meanness.

In Arizona, Savannah finds her father racing against time to fix up the garden that gives him so much pleasure. Savannah also meets Jake Grey, a loner with a dark past who is using his woodworking talent to build Doug a bench for his garden. Savannah can tell that Jake, sometimes known as "the psycho," is a lost cause. He's obviously miserable and determined to stay that way. But for some reason Savannah, who always finds a way to see hope in whatever tarot she deals, is drawn to this quiet man.

Unfortunately for Savannah, her rebellious daughter Emma gravitates right towards Eli Malone, a 19-year old dropout and petty thief. Is it true love that causes Emma to make decisions that could haunt her for life or just temporary lunacy? Savannah struggles to decide if loving her daughter means keeping her safe or letting her make her own mistakes. Meanwhile, she watches her parents spend their last days together and gains some long overdue understanding of how their marriage of opposites has endured. Savannah's inherent optimism will be tested by Emma's reckless actions, Doug's illness and Maggie's disparaging remarks about her tarot reading. But the biggest challenge will come from Jake, whose past is about to catch up with him.

Christy Yorke has a beautiful writing style. Almost every page features sentences that beg to be savored and re-read. At times in Magic Spells, the author seemed to be utilizing her talents just to show off what she could do, but here they weave together much more seamlessly. The Wishing Garden is a rich novel with Alice Hoffman-like touches of the supernatural co-existing with the mundane, including a sleazy ghost that haunts Jake, and Emma's ability to see colored auras around everyone she interacts with.

But the bottom line is that lyrical writing and interesting detail aren't enough to make a great novel. The characters have to work as well. For the most part, the two main characters, Savannah and Jake, failed to capture my heart - Savannah because she was too outlandish to be believable and Jake because he was too distant. It was almost impossible to understand why these two were attracted to each other or believe they could have a future together, despite Yorke's suggestion that love is a mysterious emotion that happens whether you're ready and willing or not. I'm not sure I agree with that premise - what about free will? And frankly, Yorke's dense, lyrical writing sometimes obscures her message. Either she needs to be a bit less mystical or I need a refresher course in English Lit.

Much more believable is Emma's doomed relationship with Eli. The portrayal of Emma is a chillingly realistic picture of a typical but troubled adolescent. And Maggie and Doug's last-minute reconciliation is poignantly effective as well.

When an author has as much writing talent as Ms. Yorke, it's going to take a while for her to harness that skill and create the best novel she is capable of. The Wishing Garden approaches that level but doesn't quite achieve it. Maybe the third time will be the charm.

--Susan Scribner

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