Title: When Autumn Leaves
Author: Amy S. Foster
Length: 287 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ★
[3/15 novels in November]
When Autumn Avening’s Sisters tell her she must leave her longtime island home, they give her a year to put her affairs in order and to choose a successor to her High Priestess-like position. Over the next year, Autumn observes and counsels many different women on the island—from Ellie, the shy and reclusive researcher for the local newspaper, to Sylvie, a spirited teenager whose mother is dying of cancer—in an effort to decide which one can replace her as the town’s “wise woman.”
This novel had an interesting premise and a quaint, magical-small-town setting going for it. I kind of liked the structure of the story, too: each candidate is introduced through a vignette taking place on a traditional Celtic holiday (Beltane, Samhain, the solstices and equinoxes, etc.) The entire town of Avening observes these celebrations, though not all its residents are pagan. The first two stories focus on rather charming characters. I found Ellie, who has the ability to make herself invisible, and Stella, a coal miner’s daughter who learned earth and healing magic from her grandmother, to be pretty intriguing. Stella’s story even had a decent little plot. I identified with this bit in particular:
Stella felt more at home in Avening than she ever had in Kentucky, which was amazing, since when she’d lived in Kentucky she’d had no way of knowing she didn’t feel at home. (75)
I understand this feeling completely. I love my Old Kentucky Home and everything, and I always will—but I’ve never felt compelled to stay here for the rest of my life, especially now that I’ve lived elsewhere.
From there, though, Foster seemed to lose focus. It quickly became clear there are not enough holidays to give every woman on Autumn’s list her own story. Indeed, one of the characters to whom Foster devotes a chapter is not even a contender, though her daughter(s) are. The result is that many of the women whom Autumn considers are total strangers to the reader at the end of this slim book. We must take it on faith that they have magical gifts, which we are told but rarely shown.
The “girl power” theme of the book also became silly and cloying after the first hundred pages or so. As in books like Sorceress, the men of Avening seem incapable of a) possessing or b) acknowledging magic—because they’re men, apparently. Piper’s husband Will is a serious offender in that regard, scoffing at the very idea of such things.
We also hear from one of the characters’ wives that she feels stifled because “my life is my husband’s.” Instead of looking for a hobby of some sort, she begs Autumn to choose her as her “apprentice” because:
[My husband] shares every worthwhile moment of my personal history. Even my child, the actual product of my body, is his. I have nothing of my own… (170)
Even her child? “The actual product of her body”? Now this is a character with issues that needed exploring—her husband explains that she had a “difficult” childhood—but did she get a chapter of her own? Of course not.
As for Autumn, she mentions more than once that she has no need of a man (ew, cooties).
Foster just lays it on way too thick for me—at the expense of virtually any compelling male characters. I understand that the book is chick lit and that it’s about women, and I’m okay with that, but she kind of beats you over the head with it.
The magical Sisterhood, the Jaen, to which Autumn belongs is also pretty confusing. Despite a dull infodump about Autumn’s past in the final chapter, nothing about the Jaen makes much sense. For one thing, Foster calls it “Eurasian” and gives its components a variety of South Asian/Indian sounding names…but then she makes Avening revolve around New Age-y, quasi-Celtic traditions. Why? It all felt very random.
And that brings me to the most frustrating thing about this hodgepodge of a novel: the inevitability of it all. Autumn supposedly has a choice, but really, her hand is forced by the Jaen oracle, which cannot be wrong. Autumn is constantly reminding all the characters that everything happens as it must happen, as it is fated to happen, and maybe that’s true, but it makes for an awfully dull story, because it takes away everyone’s agency. (This is also my main problem in most fairytale retellings.) Because of all the issues I discussed above, but especially because of this one, the ending felt heap and unsatisfying. It felt like Foster did not know how to tie up all her loose ends.
When Autumn Leaves is okay as chick lit fantasy goes. For all its flaws, it is a cute, quick read—just not a particularly memorable or well-written one.