Title: The Witch of Belladonna Bay
Author: Suzanne Palmieri
Length: 350 pages
My star rating: ★ ★ ¾
After fifteen years away, Bronwyn Whalen returns home to Magnolia Creek, Alabama, when she learns that her younger brother Patrick has been imprisoned for the murder of her best friend Charlotte. Patrick’s conviction also leaves his motherless eleven-year-old daughter, Byrd, alone save for an elderly great-aunt and an alcoholic grandfather. As the two lost Whalen girls come together, each desperate to free Patrick from prison, their respective magical powers collide and strange events begin to unfold in Magnolia Creek. Told from the alternating points-of-view of Bronwyn and Byrd, The Witch of Belladonna Bay attempts to be equal parts coming-of-age and self-discovery tales and murder mystery, with limited success.
This book is kind of a mess.
It wants to be Southern Gothic, but also chick lit, but also a crime novel. And if you know anything about Southern Gothic, you know it’s miles apart from chick lit. Maybe that’s why this one, to me, felt so…off. Something about it didn’t quite work for me.
The story is okay. It’s taken for granted by both narrators that Patrick did not kill Charlotte (and/or her son), so they want to solve the case and free him. That’s the A-plot. The B-plot has to do with Bronwyn’s past and why she ran away from home after her mother died. I didn’t find that very compelling, especially as it really never moves the A-plot forward at all. To make matters worse, the narrative itself drags because the events in Bronwyn’s chapters constantly overlap with those in Byrd’s.
And then there are the characters. Bronwyn’s family is deliberately Quirky. Not only do Bronwyn, Byrd, and their great-aunt Miranda have “strange ways,” Bronwyn becomes a loudmouthed, inconsiderate bitch as soon as she returns to Alabama. She has a really stupid nickname (“BitsyWyn”), which is used to imply that the mature, adult Bronwyn is one person and the irresponsible, cruel “BitsyWyn” is another, and I didn’t buy it. Byrd, meanwhile, is an amalgam of every other tomboyish/know-it-all/self-reliant-to-a-fault young girl in literature, and she’s not as endearing as the author thought she was. She failed as a narrator, too, in that she never sounded like an eleven-year-old. And I also never bought that the people of Magnolia Creek would let her get away with as much as they do, regardless of what she can do with magic.
The only character in whom I was invested was Bronwyn’s mother, Naomi. Her ghost narrates a few chapters, and her backstory is far superior to Bronwyn’s. I also appreciate addict mother characters, because it’s real and it’s a problem that I feel is rarely acknowledged.
As for the rest: Brownyn’s father is/has always been a drunk, but it’s okay, he’s not actually a mean drunk, just kind of sassy–the kind who lets eleven-year-olds drink liquor and smoke cigars and then chides his “uptight Yankee” daughter about criticizing this. None of the other characters are developed enough to mention, though Bronwyn’s fiance Ben came close to having a real personality.
There is also a totally unnecessary love triangle in this book between Bronwyn’s childhood sweetheart, Grant, and Ben. As soon as she goes back to Alabama, all Bronwyn talks about are her memories of Grant. She starts to suspect he killed Charlotte and goes to New Orleans to confront him. There, he’s a low-life bartender with a trashy girlfriend, and he continues to be a dick to Bronwyn throughout his rare appearances in the rest of the story, but for some reason she’s still into him. There is not a satisfying–or believable–conclusion to the “love” story, let me just say.
I didn’t buy the conclusion of the murder mystery (or the town’s reaction to it), either. It was quite abrupt, without enough backstory or build-up behind it. It could have been creepy; it could have been fascinating; but instead, it was just unpleasant.
The fantasy element struck me as somewhat sloppy as well. The nature of Naomi, Bronwyn, and especially Byrd’s abilities is never well-established. As a result, the magic/witchcraft ends up seeming both confused and confusing.
My other major problem with The Witch of Belladonna Bay was the way Palmieri wrote about the South (vs. the Northeast). If you go by this book, people in the Northeast really are uptight and disinterested, hiding their true selves and true thoughts and not living life to the fullest because…it’s cold sometimes? Meanwhile, the South makes people open up and behave however they please; it’s a place of freedom and emotions and blah blah blah. In the Northeast, Naomi’s gifts were called witchcraft and feared; in the South, they’re called “strange ways” and accepted. Okay. There’s nothing wrong with having a strong sense of place–in fact, in Southern Gothic it’s a requirement. But I grew up in a state that can be called Southern, and I’ve been to many other Southern states. I’ve also spent extended time in New England. And let me tell you: people are people. My New England friends are delightfully warm and welcoming, every one. So the constant pitting those two regions against one another struck me as stereotypical, lazy, and just plain untrue.
I didn’t hate this book, and I thought it had (mostly wasted) potential. Several more revisions and rewrites–and either a hundred more pages or a substantial trimming of the meaningless subplots and minor characters–probably would have made it a much stronger novel. I’ve read that the author’s Witch of Little Italy novel is much better, so perhaps I’ll try again.
[At one point, Byrd says she’d like to be Hannibal Lecter’s daughter because she would enjoy knowing that she was the one person in the world he would never, ever hurt. How do I keep picking novels with totally random, out-of-context references to one of my favorite characters/series of all time? How?!?]