If it had not been for my participating in the BookSparks 2014 Summer Reading Challenge, I would not have likely encountered Suzanne Palmieri's The Witch of Belladonna Bay. I don't typically gravitate towards mysteries or stories with supernatural elements and Palmieri's story has both, with a heavy dose of family drama thrown in for good measure.
The story follows Bronwyn, a photographer living in New York, who has been called home to Alabama to take care of her eleven year old niece, Byrd, after Byrd's father has been jailed for murder. As a teenager, Bronwyn ran far away from her life in Alabama, which included a mother who died of an opium overdose and an alcoholic father. To add another layer of trouble, the females in Bronwyn's family are witches and have various powers that they wish to keep concealed. When Bronwyn returns home, she becomes a mother figure to the free-spirited, wild-child Byrd and tries to absolve her brother of the murder that he did not commit.
There is a lot going on in this story. It's definitely not short of either characters or plot. If anything, Palmieri could have scaled back on both to make a stronger story. I'm still not sure why Bronwyn's fiancé from New York, Ben, was critical to the story? I also didn't need to know all of the information about Byrd's mother. It was too much excess to keep track of and it bogged down the pacing. The style frequently shifted as well. Sometimes it was incredibly serious and at other times, it read like a soft-boiled detective novel. I wish that it had erred more on the side of serious literature.
What I really enjoyed about the story was the beautiful setting of Alabama and Belladonna Bay. There are lush descriptions in this very atmospheric novel. It's often beautiful. I really loved both Bronwyn and Byrd as individuals and their relationship to one another. I was very close to my aunt who recently passed away and reading this story about the relationship between an aunt and niece, had a healing element for me. Byrd, with her eccentricity, is a fun character. I could tell that Palmieri really cared about these characters and the world that she has created, it shone through in her writing.
I wanted more backstory scenes with Bronwyn as a child. These were my favorite parts of the story. Palmieri has set up such a rich family history plagued with very serious problems, that I wanted more here and less of the present. The murder mystery was far less interesting than the emotional content of the story.
Overall, this was a good book. Palmieri is now on my radar and if the subject matter caught my eye, I would give another book of hers a shot. I would recommend The Witch of Belladonna Bay as a vacation summer read. You'll want to take this and read it while sunbathing poolside with a cocktail, preferably something with bourbon.