Saint Juniper’s Folly
- By Alex Crespo
- Peachtree Teen
- 304 pp.
- Reviewed by Nick Havey
- August 24, 2023
A mysterious haunted house sits at the center of this charming queer romance.
Growing up in Arizona, there weren’t a lot of options when it came to escaping into the woods with my friends or exploring abandoned houses at the edges of forests. The best we could do was trespass at under-construction cookie-cutter builds in the suburbs. It’s not a shock, then, that we spent a lot of time in college playing Betrayal of the House on the Hill, a board game.
Haunted houses offer a lot of room (often literally, as the homes most prominent in my childhood memory looked like mansions) to explore and unpack emotions. But who wants to tiptoe through a spooky manse alone? Saint Juniper’s Folly, Alex Crespo’s marvelous debut, understands that these structures are the perfect place to experience danger, personal growth, and, in this instance, romance.
Jaime has never really had a stable family, which is why he’s been sent to Saint Juniper, Vermont, to live with a foster one. Unfortunately, that family isn’t particularly stable, either. So, it’s no wonder he spends much of his time wandering around outside — and eventually finds himself trapped in a haunted house by a curse he doesn’t understand.
Theo is also lost, but less in the woods — nicknamed Saint Juniper’s Folly — than in thought, which is how he comes to crash his car in the Folly and finds the very house Jaime is trapped in. Theo is ever a Virgo, so solving a problem on behalf of a handsome boy like Jaime is exactly the project he needs.
Naturally, by-the-book Virgo Theo can’t unravel a hex of this proportion by himself. Enter Taylor, a young witch whose mother’s death has created a rift between her and her father, a man decidedly against the use of magic and the family’s grimoire. Avoiding magic is a bit of a challenge, however, as they run what is functionally a witchy apothecary, and since Taylor is obsessed with her mother’s powers and her family legacy. Luckily, Taylor is friends with a teen psychic who gives Theo a reading — to disastrous effect. Something is up in Saint Juniper’s Folly, and our trio must figure out what it is.
Research at the library ensues, the boys develop a mutual crush, and the three quickly realize they need each other, for Jaime, Theo, and Taylor are truly found family. Their developing friendship and, for Jaime and Theo, romance, is crucial, as Jaime’s visit from Child Protective Services looms, and the haunted house he is trapped in faces demolition. There are real consequences if they can’t get him out. Jaime will die.
At the center of Saint Juniper’s Folly is a clever mystery that Crespo unfolds in tantalizing chunks. What is going on with the house we come to learn is called Blackwood? Why is Jaime the only one who can’t leave its boundaries? And why are Taylor and Theo the right ones to undo whatever magic is keeping Jaime prisoner? I loved unraveling the answers to these questions and look forward to more of Crespo’s writing. It is, in a word, enchanting.
As a debut, Saint Juniper’s Folly is incredibly successful. It has thrills, chills, and romance. Its teenage characters are adorable in their mayhem and missteps. It’s also an able commentary on the experience of being queer and nonwhite in a small town. Jaime is both, and his time in Saint Juniper emphasizes it. Crespo’s ability to spin allegory from a delightful haunted-house narrative is itself spellcraft. He’s one to watch.
Nick Havey is a senior manager at First Book, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on improving educational equity, a thriller and mystery writer, and a lover of all (but particularly queer) fiction. His work has appeared in the Compulsive Reader, Lambda Literary, and a number of peer-reviewed journals.