I’ve always been in awe of songwriters. Creating a song that people want to listen to over and over, or that brings a listener back to a particular time and place in her life seems magical to me. It takes a true artist to convey such strong emotion in just a handful of lines within a three- or four-minute long piece of music, and Amy S. Foster is one such artist. An award-winning lyricist, she’s written songs for musicians such as Diana Krall, Michael Buble, and Andrea Bocelli. It’s impressive when a writer can achieve success both with a short, collaborative form and with a longer, stand-alone work. Foster makes an eloquent transition from songwriter to novelist in her debut novel, When Autumn Leaves.
Like a well-written song, the novel evokes a powerful atmosphere. Foster’s vivid descriptions bring the charming town of Avening, a magical haven in the Pacific Northwest, to life. And the story captures our attention from the first note, when we meet the title character. Autumn is a member of the Jaen, “an ancient order of women who dedicate their lives to the service of others.” For years, she has guided the people of Avening, a town whose steady undercurrent of magic has attracted a unique citizenry. It is easy to like the community’s quirky denizens, who, for all their magical leanings, struggle with issues common to us all: love, friendship, marriage, family, sickness, death. In the first chapter, Autumn learns she is being reassigned. She must leave Avening–but first she must choose her successor from a list of townswomen provided by the oracle of the Jaen.
The subsequent chapters are presented as stories told from the points of view of many women on Autumn’s list. We meet Ellie Penhaligan, an insecure young woman who comes down with an unusual affliction on the night of the winter solstice; Piper, a mother battling cancer; Ana, a married woman who has fallen in love with another man; among others. If the novel has a flaw, it’s that some characters don’t get nearly enough page time. Several early chapters feel almost entirely self-contained–like short stories–and the characters who inhabited them felt fully realized; but in later chapters, the stories were so complex that I wished I could have read entire books devoted to their characters, entire books describing their situations and magical abilities. One of the central characters is hardly described at all, which leaves the conclusion of the tale feeling weaker than it might have been. However, such restraint may have been intentional on Foster’s part: according to her website, this book is just the first installment in the Jaen Saga.
When Autumn Leaves is a strong and exciting first novel, and readers will close its cover looking forward to further adventures of the magical women of Avening.
– For readers curious to compare the author’s vision of the town with their own imaginings, Foster has laid out a map of Avening’s main street on her website.
– If you’re shopping for a copy of this novel, remember your local indie bookstore.
– Writer-knitters, check out Amy S. Foster’s craft blog, Amy’s Desk.