First off thanks to Audio Jukebox, once again, for allowing us to listen and review this book as part of their Solid Gold Reader program. I enjoyed the narration by Angela Brazil and I think that Tiffany Baker’s writing is top-notch. Unfortunately, the story just didn’t do it for me. I really wanted to like it– I thoroughly enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County and am usually a fan of the “magical realism” genre. Unfortunately, this story was full of hateful characters who basically got what they deserved and, as much as it was mentioned, I didn’t really buy that the Gilly Salt was all that magical. By the end I was literally shouting “OH! Come ON!!” at my CD player and was anxious for it to be over.
The Gilly sisters, Joanna and Claire, grew up living with their mother in the Cape Cod town of Prospect on a marshy land where they harvested salt (of all things). Jo is the stalwart, hardworking sister and Claire is the frivolous beauty. The Gillys have a sordid history with the town– most suspect they are witches (every year on December’s Eve one of the sisters tosses a packet of Gilly Salt into a public bon fire to tell the fortune of the town; businesses who refuse to serve or sell the Gilly Salt do not thrive; people leave Gilly Salt packets as offerings to “Our Lady of Perpetual Salt”, the strange faceless paining of the Virgin Mary that the town seems to be obsessed with; everything Claire bakes with the Gilly Salt turns out to be the most delicious thing anyone has ever tasted). Claire wants nothing more than to escape the life of salt and Jo wants nothing more than to ensure the salt thrives.
Jo’s childhood was difficult. She starts working in the salt at a very young age and witnesses her twin brother drown in one of the salt pools (tradition dictates that men do not thrive on Salt Creek Farm so you saw this coming a mile away). She is devastated and vows not to let the same thing happen to Claire. Jo does Claire’s share of the work which turns her into a bit of a spoiled brat. While Jo works her fingers to the bone Claire spends her time going to school, socializing and hanging out underneath the pear tree making out with her “betrothed” (town hottie Ethan Stone). Jo’s one and only friend is Whit Turner– the only son of the richest family in town. An age-old Turner/Gilly feud is implied but the only standout reason for hostility has more to do with their mothers than family history (and this “doozy” of a secret is another that can be seen a mile away so is not all that shocking). Whit is wild about Jo but Jo only loves the salt (and she accidentally finds out their mothers’ big secret while praying to “Our Lady” so is totally turned off of being in any kind of romantic relationship with Whit and tells him so).
Claire eventually does get off of Salt Creek Farm, but not the way she expected. She patiently waits for Ethan to propose and take her away but Ethan has other plans– he is going to join the priesthood (which he tells her about AFTER he takes her virginity on graduation night under the make-out tree– how romantic!). Claire is devastated– so much so that she accidentally starts a fire in the salt barn. Jo sees the fire and rushes in to save her sister. Claire escapes without a scratch but Jo is burnt to a deformed crispy mess (she is left with a terrible limp and needs a glass eye which further perpetuates the witch myth). Claire is overcome with guilt so what else can she do but run off and marry Whit (WHAT?). She knows that Whit is only marrying her for revenge and is fine with it as long as it gets her off Salt Creek Farm forever. She tries to forget Ethan and that she was ever a Gilly. She becomes a whole new person– rich, snobby and mean.
About 20 years later the mothers are dead, Jo has solely inherited Salt Creek Farm and Claire and Whit have become the town bullies. Whit has bought up half the town and Claire spends her time riding her horse through town trying to ruin her sister’s business by telling everyone that Gilly Salt is toxic, not magic (HUH?). We meet Dee, an annoying trash-bag of a gal who comes to live in Prospect with her father. She is only 18 and becomes weirdly obsessed with Claire. She learns that Claire could never have children (lots of miscarriages), that Whit wants to own Salt Creek Farm and that they live a life apart and out of love. She uses these facts as an excuse to sleep with Whit, who also a notorious womanizer. Eventually, Dee gets knocked up and kicked out of her father’s home. Claire finds out about their affair when she sees Whit trying to choke Dee to death– a.k.a. taking care of his “little problem”. Claire bonks Whit in the head with a shovel (like a freaking cartoon!) and she and Dee escape to the only place they can be safe– Salt Creek Farm.
So, if the eye rolling hasn’t already begun this is where it will start. Jo mercifully gives Dee and Claire sanctuary and they become a strange little family unto themselves. Claire and Jo mother Dee during her pregnancy and they all work together in harmony farming the Gilly Salt. There is a resurgence in its popularity because Claire has rebranded it as a gourmet product (and she is no longer bad mouthing it to the whole town!). Dee eventually has the baby (who they call Jordan– “after the river” = cheesy) and Claire falls in love with him (“We’ll call him Jordy” = more cheese). They bring him home to Salt Creek Farm and Claire begins to take over as the mother. Ethan Stone has also returned to town as the new parish priest (which makes Claire extremely “happy”). He begins to frequent Salt Creek Farm and is also charmed by Jordy. Dee, even though she is a borderline imbecile, thinks there is something unnatural about the situation and decides that she must leave as soon as she has the strength (it was a difficult birth and Dee almost dies– of course). Before she goes, though, she gives Whit one more chance to raise the baby with her. Whit secretly comes to meet Dee in the salt barn on December’s Eve (when Jo and Claire are away tending to the town bon fire) and it “mysteriously” catches on fire (again).
A 2.5 for me– I could not stand Claire and I am still not sure if she was supposed to be a hero or a villain– she did all kinds of nasty stuff to her sister (like deform her with fire, marry her best friend, try to ruin the family business) and in the end got rewarded for it all (got her man back, “inherited” a baby , thrived as a gourmet baker and artesian grocer). The descriptions of Salt Creek Farm and the actual harvesting of the salt was quite interesting (all except for the detailed descriptions of drowning feral KITTENS! So unnecessary!) and I do look forward to see what Tiffany Baker’s next book will bring.