In Allen’s newest sugar-and-spice Southern fantasy (The Sugar Queen, 2008, etc.), a teenage girl comes to live with her grandfather in a small town where oddity is a way of life.
Raised by her selfless, politically active mother Dulcie in Boston, Emily has never met or heard about her grandfather until she comes to live with him in Mullaby, N.C., after Dulcie’s sudden death. Emily immediately confronts unexplainable peculiarities: Grandfather Vance turns out to be a shy giant over eight feet tall; the wallpaper in Emily’s room changes at will; strange white lights materialize at night in the woods outside her window; objects appear and disappear without reason. And then there are the locals’ less-than-warm memories of Dulcie. Emily makes friends with Win, a teenage boy whose family secret requires him to stay inside at night. Win tells Emily that his uncle committed suicide because Dulcie cruelly exposed his secret to the town. Grandfather Vance’s neighbor Julia, who has also befriended Emily, was Dulcie’s classmate and acknowledges that in high school Dulcie—spoiled, rich and popular—mercilessly teased Julia, then a troubled teen who dyed her hair pink and cut herself. Julia left Mullaby when she was 16 and has come back for a temporary stay only because her father died. Until she pays off his debts, she is running his barbecue restaurant, where she has added cakes and pastries to the menu. What Julia doesn’t tell Emily is that the night before she left Mullaby to attend a school for troubled girls in Baltimore, she made love with handsome preppy Sawyer and ended up pregnant. Sawyer, who assumed she had an abortion, is now pursuing Julia again, but there is a secret she has not told him. As the parallel romances of Emily and Win and Julia and Sawyer evolve, the secrets of Mullaby become sources of happiness rather than pain.
Fans of Allen’s brand of romantic whimsy won’t mind the inconsistencies and lapses of logic, but others may cringe at the implausibility.