I greatly enjoy magical realism, that kind of story where everything seems perfectly normal except for that one exceptional element that steps outside the boundaries of everyday life. I recently picked up Midnight at the Blackbird Café, by Heather Webber, and by the end of the book I was wishing that both the magic and the realism for which the book is touted had been a bigger part of it, because this book, while in some places magical, is not realism: It’s a cozy.
Not to say that the magical elements felt tacked on—on the contrary, they were the most compelling elements. The most charming part of the narrative, for me, was when the story flashed back to the grandmother, Zee, telling the legend of the blackbirds to her granddaughter, Anna Kate. After Anna Kate’s mother made Zee promise not to talk about the blackbirds, Zee kept to the letter of the law, but that didn’t stop her from sharing their heritage in stories:
Once upon a time there was a family of Celtic women with healing hands and giving hearts, who knew the value of the earth and used its abundance to heal, to soothe, to comfort. Doing so filled their souls with peace and happiness. Those women held a secret. The women are guardians of a place where, under midnight skies, spirits cross from this world through a mystical passageway to the Land of the Dead. The tree keepers, black as twilight…came from overseas a century ago, drawn to a small southern town. There, a passageway is marked with large twin trees. Where their branches meet and entwine, a natural tunnel is formed—and at midnight, that tunnel spans this world and the heavenly one. Twenty-four keepers, black as twilight.
The basic story is this: In Wicklow, Alabama, there is a café, always run by women from the same heritage, where eating a piece of pie can give you a dream in which you receive a communication from a dead loved one. Out behind the café, behind its garden filled with herbs and vegetables, are twin mulberry trees, and from between these trees, at midnight each night, come 24 female blackbirds, who perch on the trees and sing until 1:00 a.m. and then leave the way they came. The trees, the bird, the women’s bloodline, and the pies are all somehow mystically entwined.
Anna Kate has returned to town to bury her beloved Granny Zee, owner of the Blackbird Café. She was planning a quick trip to sell the café and settle her grandmother’s estate, but Granny Zee’s will contained conditions, among them that Anna Kate had to keep the café open and running for a period of months before she can dispose of it. (Of course it did.) So Anna Kate, who is enrolled in medical school for the fall semester, settles in for the summer to learn the business from Zee’s two long-term employees, and in the process begins to get to know her father’s side of the family, from whom she has been estranged her entire life. Her mother left Wicklow at 18, pregnant with Anna Kate and determined never to return after the shabby treatment she received from the Lindens, Anna Kate’s father’s family, and she kept that promise. But in a town the size of Wicklow, Anna Kate finds it difficult to avoid practically constant contact with her parents’ past, including the family ties she was determined to ignore for her mother’s sake.
The 24 blackbirds make a rare appearance in daylight to swoop past during Granny Zee’s funeral, and an eager bird-watcher reports the phenomenon of a flock of Turdas merula, a kind of blackbird not ever seen on this continent. Suddenly the sleepy town, which has lately closed the doors to half the businesses on its main street, is mobbed by birdwatchers, who camp out, frequent the café, buy food and supplies, and prove ripe for the villagers’ marketing of souvenirs of their trip. Following them come the reporters. Like magic, the town finances and the town spirit are revitalized, all due to the blackbirds. But what will happen when their caretaker turns her back on them, sells the café, and heads off to medical school, leaving people without the knowledge of the pies’ secret ingredient to fail to keep the covenant with the door to the other world?
You can probably write the rest of the book for yourself, based on my description because, as I said earlier, it’s a masquerading cozy, a “relationship fiction” book with magical elements. Arguments, the airing of dirty laundry, the placing of blame, the process of forgiveness, reconciliations, and new love interests all lead to doubts about departure from Wicklow for the two protagonists. I didn’t mention there were two? One is Anna Kate, whose existence wasn’t known to the Linden family until she arrived in town for the funeral, and the other is Natalie, the much younger daughter of the Lindens, who is Anna Kate’s aunt despite being only a few years older than she is. Natalie is living in the Lindens’ guest house with her toddler, Ollie, after the death of her husband, trying to come to grips with the tragedy and, with gritted teeth, trying not to react to her mother’s constant oversight and criticism. Both she and Anna Kate come in for a large dose of that.
I did enjoy this book to a point, and I don’t mean to sound like a snob; but the author ranges perilously close to stereotypical with the main characters, and definitely crosses that line when it comes to the depiction of the town “characters.” The southern accents, attitudes, and clichés were a little too “sweet tea,” in my opinion. The transformations wrought by all the brangling—particularly that of Seelie Linden—were too pat and too easy, verging on cheesy. It’s formulaic, and the formula has become threadbare from use. Webber writes well, so it never exactly descends to the level of a Hallmark movie, but at times it comes close. She also needs to learn to vary her metaphors when it comes to romance: If we had to endure mention of Gideon’s “molten lava eyes” one more time….please, no.
Still, it’s hard to find books with good magical realism included, and the way that part of the story was handled was charming and fresh, so seek it out for that advantage, and see how you react to the book as a whole. Be prepared to crave pie, not to mention biscuits and gravy, fried chicken, barbecue….