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Jenna Bush Hager says her March 2023 book pick will 'bring you joy'

“It’s about love, it’s about mothers and daughters, and it has a really cool premise."
Read with Jenna March Pick

For her March 2023 Read With Jenna pick, Jenna Bush Hager selected a story of family and what we pass on to each other. In the case of the Montrose family of “Black Candle Women,” the intergenerational gifts are magical abilities … and curses.

The debut novel by Diane Marie Brown follows four generations of Montrose women as they grapple with their magical legacy in present-day California and the repercussions of their matriarch’s decisions in 1950s New Orleans.

“It’s a very cool premise,” Jenna says of the book, which incorporates the voodoo religion, hoodoo magic and New Orleans history.

“There’s a curse set upon the grandmother of this family and therefore any of the women who come after her are not able to fall in love. In fact, the men that fall in love with them will die,” she continues.

Big picture? “It’s about love, it’s about mothers and daughters, and it will bring you so much joy,” Jenna says.

Speaking to, Brown says she began writing the novel in her creative writing program, which she balanced alongside her career in public health. The book was inspired by her family — or rather, the family she wished she had growing up.

“I created this family that I thought would be interesting. I didn’t know my grandparents. I’m an only child. I didn’t have cousins my age. I always wanted that big family, I wanted to know my history,” she says. “And I really wanted a sister.”

Brown got her big family, in the end, by having four daughters of her own — and by inventing the magical Montrose women. The Montrose women have an ancestor with ties to voodoo, and she passes down her abilities to one person in each generation.

Her own family informs a few of the characters: Nikki, a teenager, is inspired by each of her four daughters. Augusta, the matriarch, is inspired by her mom’s “creativity and craftiness.” The other characters, like sisters Willow and Augusta, were Brown “taking on personalities that were much different than mine.”

She built up a reference library — like Denise Alvarado’s “Hoodoo Voodoo Spellbook” — while writing the book. “I’m a huge fan of Zora Neale Hurston, and some of her early work described spells and processes people used to try and ward against evil or manipulate things to make them go their way,” she says.

“Black Candle Women” took a decade-long journey from MFA thesis to published novel. After completing a draft, Brown went through multiple rejections. The book stayed on the shelf as a manuscript, but she never gave up hope.

“I just loved the story so much that I didn't want to let it go,” she says. “I just loved these women.”

In 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, Brown took note of organizations doing more than “posting a black box on Instagram” when it came to structural racism.

Graydon House, a publishing imprint of HarperCollins, put out an open call for un-agented fiction from Black authors — meaning people, like Brown, who had a completed novel but no literary agent (usually a prerequisite for getting published).

“I sent the query letter with 50 pages. A couple weeks later, the person who would become my editor called and said, ‘I think I'd like to see the whole thing,” she says .

Brown describes what followed as “the craziest week ever.” The same day she received the call, Brown learned she had COVID-19 — and was still working 50 hours on COVID response in Long Beach, California.

“I would work, work, work while I was sick, and then revise my book,” she says.

As for whether she believes in magic? Maybe not the kind the Montrose women practice — but definitely the kind of everyday life.

“We see magic every day. This is all magical.”