Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Review: Spellcast by Barbara Ashford

Spellcast by Barbara Ashford
Published: Penguin Group, 2011
The Book:
Maggie Graham is having a very bad day. First, she loses her job. Then the bathroom ceiling in her Brooklyn apartment collapses. That’s when Maggie decides she needs to get out of town. A weekend in Vermont seems like the perfect getaway.

When she stumbles on the Crossroads Theatre, reviving her acting career is the last thing on her mind, but a week later, she’s back in summer stock at a theatre unlike any she’s ever known.

Director Rowan Mackenzie is even odder than the collection of misfits that comprise the cast. What kind of director casts people in the roles they need? And never leaves the grounds of the theatre? And possesses the power to transform a train wreck of a show into a magical experience for cast and audience alike?

There’s a secret at the Crossroads, and Maggie is determined to uncover it before summer’s end – if she can prevent her mother from discovering her whereabouts, deal with the staff’s efforts to thwart her, and avoid falling prey to Rowan Mackenzie’s charm. She never imagines that she will uncover secrets about her past that will change her life – and Rowan’s – forever.” ~barbara-ashford.com

I chose to read Spellcast mostly as the result of a positive review over at the Calico Reaction blog.  The premise made me feel a little nostalgic about my own experiences participating in musical theatre, and it seemed very different from many of the novels I’ve been reading lately.  I was a little nervous about it being a paranormal romance, but there is a lot to like in this novel.
My Thoughts:
The three major topics of the novel Spellcast are musical theatre, journeys of self-discovery, and paranormal romance.  If you’re a person who enjoys at least two of those three things, then I think the novel would be a good fit.  I like well-written stories about people trying to find their own paths, and I have something of a history with working in amateur musical theatre (as tech, not an actress).  I was worried that the paranormal romance angle might overwhelm the book, but I don’t feel like that was the case.  The central romance and certain expected romantic clichés were present from early on, but they seemed to fit in well with other elements of the story.  The paranormal aspects were fairly subtle until rather far into the book, and I think that, for the most part, they added to the impact of the story.
The summer season of the Crossroads Theatre was the driving force behind the story. I loved Ashford’s portrayal of the camaraderie between cast and crew, and the emotional highs and lows associated with putting on a show. Ashford also used the musicals’ material and the actors’ performances to examine the fears and motivations of different characters, and to push them towards a deeper understanding of themselves.  This might be more effective if you’re really familiar with Brigadoon and Carousel.  However, I didn’t really know much about the plays beyond a vague idea of the general plots, and I don’t feel like the novel left me behind.  I was really impressed that Ashford managed to keep the daily rehearsals and multiple performances of each show from feeling repetitive.  They were all incorporated into the personal growth of various characters, as they immersed themselves in their roles and simultaneously faced difficult truths about themselves. 
The story was narrated by Maggie, the only experienced actress of the cast, which added a sense of nostalgia and familiarity to her descriptions of the workings of the theatre.  Maggie’s also a pretty funny narrator.  She’s the sort of person who reflexively uses humor to deflect attention, and so her dialogue and thoughts are full of humorous statements or quirky little pop culture references.  Early on in the narrative, though, the pop culture references seemed particularly thick.  Sometimes she would simply reference a person’s (celebrity’s) name to invoke a description, which didn’t work particularly well in the few cases where I didn’t recognize the reference.  She also tended to assign objects or events joking pop culture nicknames, and use them throughout the rest of the story.  For example, in the small town with the Crossroads Theatre, there was a mansion on a hill that she constantly referred to as the “Bates Mansion” (as in Psycho).  Sometimes this worked, but sometimes it just felt like she was repeating herself.  Even with those few minor complaints, I really enjoyed experiencing the story framed by Maggie’s perceptions.
Though various cast members do grow and change throughout the theatre season, the main focus is on the development of Maggie and Rowan.  They’re very similar in a lot of ways.  For one thing, they both tend to focus on helping others, rather than looking after their own personal problems.  While the romance elements of the novel did occasionally seem very typical, I liked how well the non-lusty aspects of their relationship were explored.  Rowan and Maggie are both dynamic, well-rounded characters, and their interaction drives a lot of their personal growth.  As they get to know each other better, they push each other to confront uncomfortable truths about themselves and to become more than they were before.  Spellcast manages to sidestep much of the predictability I associate with romances, and it pulls together into a conclusion that is both unexpected and completely fitting for the story.  
My Rating: 4/5
Spellcast was a delightful story of love, self-discovery and theatre.  The lead characters, Maggie and Rowan, were both imperfect characters with realistic depth, making their personal journeys easy to want to follow.  As the narrator, Maggie’s sense of humor and strong personality really brought the story to life.  I loved how Ashford used musicals as a lens through which to view the struggles of her characters, and I loved her portrayal of the season at the mysterious Crossroads Theatre.  The supernatural aspects built up gradually throughout the story, and fit in well with the other elements of the novel.  Some parts of the romance did seem a little typical, but the overall plot held plenty of surprises.  I hear there will be a sequel, but I think that the conclusion of Spellcast ties the story together in a remarkably satisfying way.


  1. Yay! I'm so glad you liked this! I'm really hoping this book does well for the author, as she's trying to reinvest herself, so to speak. :)

  2. Thanks for your comment! She seems to be a great writer, I hope "Spellcast" gets the attention it deserves!