Magic Spells by Christy Yorke
(Bantam, $5.99, PG) ISBN 0-553-57842-1
Magic Spells features cover endorsements from Deborah Smith, Kristin Hannah and Luanne Rice -- three authors I greatly admire -- so I had high expectations of the reading experience. Unfortunately, with all due respect to those authors, I was disappointed by the novel. Also, although Magic Spells is allegedly "in the style of Alice Hoffman," it does not display that author's enchanting skill. Yet Christy Yorke does show considerable promise in her debut novel.

Jane Gregory has recently returned to her hometown of Pendleton, Vermont, along with her six-year-old son, Alex. Her memories of Pendleton are painful. Jane's father abandoned the family soon after her birth, and her mother cared more for hurt animals than her own daughter. Jane's only childhood friend was Graham Payton, whose friendship evolved into a deep and lasting love. But Jane only had eyes for Graham's wild and reckless brother Ned. On the eve of their wedding, a pregnant Jane made a careless wish as she realized that Ned would never be a faithful husband. When Ned was killed in a car accident later that night, Jane left Pendleton, convinced she was responsible for his death.

Now that Jane has returned seven years later, the quiet town of Pendleton is in for a bumpy ride. Graham, who married his high school sweetheart even though he still yearned for Jane, tries to be a good husband. The women of Pendleton, who believe that both Jane and her grandmother are witches, beg for love potions. A gorgeous hunk of malehood named Devon Zeke moves in across the street from Jane's house and sets female pulses racing. Both Graham and Jane have strong reactions to Devon, whose reckless personality is strikingly similar to Ned's.

Pendleton has probably the biggest impact on Alex Gregory. In his entire six years, he has never spoken a word. Jane has taken him to numerous specialists without finding a cause or a cure. If Alex could talk, he would tell his mother that he knows exactly what happened to his voice. A fire-breathing dragon lives in his throat and burns his words to a crisp. It will take some very strong magic to cure Jane's guilt, Graham's yearning, and Alex's muteness.

The comparison between Christy Yorke and Alice Hoffman probably derives from the fact that both have a lyrical style that features the supernatural co-existing with the mundane world. But in Alice Hoffman's expert hands, the reader is caught up in the emotion and can leave rational thought behind. Christy Yorke is a skilled writer, but she doesn't have the control and power to pull off the same feat. For example, as young women, both Jane and her grandmother fell in love at first sight with wild, irresponsible men who desperately needed changing -- and foolishly thought they could accomplish that futile task. The fact that Jane is 30 years old before she realizes how immature that philosophy was made me pity and scorn her -- not empathize with her. The somber tone of the novel and its slow pace caused me to put the book down too easily during the first 200 pages.

And yet there was a lot to appreciate about Magic Spells. While I wanted to kick Jane for being so clueless, Devon was a fascinating, complex character. Until his last scene, I was never quite sure if he was a villain or not -- or even if he was a real live human being. But his presence enlivened the book. And although Alex was too mature to be a realistic six-year-old boy, his gallant struggles to survive the ridicule of his peers and find his own cure was heartbreakingly poignant. Also on the positive side, Jane's thoughts and feelings about parenthood will ring true to many mothers.

Yorke creates a fanciful world where a woman's power can cause rose bushes to bloom in the middle of winter, but leaves it to the reader to decide if the unusual events in the novel are caused by magic or coincidence. She sets up a climax in the last 50 pages that -- finally! -- drew me in and kept me hooked. If the book were judged on that final section alone, it would have earned a solid 4-heart rating.

I can't wholeheartedly recommend Magic Spells, but it wasn't a lost cause, either. I'll mentally file Christy Yorke under "authors to keep an eye on." Readers who, like myself, appreciate Deborah Smith, Luanne Rice and/or Kristin Hannah might want to check this book out to see if they agree with those notable authors' recommendations.

--Susan Scribner

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