by Amanda Coplin
Harper Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers
“And that was the point of children, thought Caroline Middey, to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing.” (pg. 124)
I am tempted to make this review all of five words (You. Must. Read. This. Book) and then call it a day.
Somehow, though, I think the folks at TLC Book Tours, which provided a copy of The Orchardist to me for review, might be expecting a little more.
I’ll tell you this, though: The Orchardist exceeded all my expectations and then some. I’d heard this was a good book, but that’s insufficient praise. This is simply astounding, made even moreso by the fact that this is a first novel. The Orchardist is the kind of novel where every single word – every single syllable, really – is deliberately included and weighted with meaning. Everything is intentional. And everything works, beautifully.
In my view, The Orchardist is absolutely flawless. (And you know I rarely say that about any book, but in this case, it is true.) This is, quite simply, a spectacular novel, one that has landed among my all-time favorites and one that will be among my most-recommended.
As soon as one opens this book, you’re immediately drawn back in time to another era and place. It’s the turn of the century in the Pacific Northwest, a time when people travel by mule-drawn wagons and wash their clothes by the side of the creek, their lives dependent on the whims of the weather and the rhythms of the land.
It is to this land of canyons and ridges and two diseased fruit trees that young William Talmadge first arrives with his mother and his sister. In time, the land becomes fertile again and Talmadge (as he is referred to during this sweeping, expansive novel) makes a modest, simple living tending his many acres of apple, apricot and plum trees.
One day, while Talmadge is in town selling his fruit, he dozes off at his stand. Two pregnant girls rob him of his cash; they’re hungry and savage-like, described as feral.
“Her anger at him was deep, but finally had little to nothing to do with him. The anger was the mask of an emotion that would not show its true face. She fought against the same force against which he fought. Fate, inevitability, luck. God. He would fly in the face of this force now, for her. If she could be freed from it, he would free her. He would make it all up to her, now.” (pg. 342).
The girls – Jane and Della – follow Talmadge to his orchard and out of kindness and generosity (for honest to God, there is not a more benevolent person on Earth than Talmadge) he begins to feed and shelter them.
And that is probably all I can say about the plot without giving too much else away, yet there’s so much to tell you about this novel. Amanda Coplin’s writing is gorgeous, poetic, and fluid; she swept me up into the story (one that is, admittedly, often tension-filled) immediately and did not let go for 426 pages.
This is a novel of big, overlapping themes: both the moral ones – to everything there is a season; an eye for an eye; do unto others – and the religious symbolism represented by the apple orchard (the Garden of Eden) and all that happens within (those who have read the book will know what I refer to, specifically; in general terms, life, death, babies placed in baskets, prodigal children, Talmadge himself as a forgiving and loving presence) and the communion of being one with the earth and returning to the earth after we die, the eternal struggle of good versus evil.
The layers of themes would be more than ambitious enough for a first novel, but then add in the spectacular character development, sustained brilliantly over decades encompassing these many pages. As Beth Kephart said in her review (“The Orchardist/Amanda Coplin : a work of utter genius”) “No one will ever convince me that Talmadge didn’t live, or that the baby Angelene isn’t living, still, or that somewhere in the northwest, a grove of gnarled trees isn’t recalling two ruined sisters.”
Indeed, for these are more than simply characters, more than just words on a page. The depth of feeling and emotion that we get from these souls – each one of them – is more than some people evoke from their so-called closest friends and relatives. By the end of the novel, we know them just as well.
Or perhaps even better.
“This look of sorrow as she walked among the fires – it was familiar to him, he had felt that way too, when he was younger. How to talk about it, how to talk about such things. When he was a boy he was happy when the men arrived, and in a way wanted them to remain forever – but he was also anxious that they had arrived, that he was no longer alone. The sorrow came from those two feelings – the happiness of company, the anxiety of uninterrupted solitude. That was what he had felt, he thought, and what to some extent he still felt. But never to the extent he had then, when he was young, when he did not know what to make of his feelings. When one is young, he thought, one thinks that one will never know oneself. But the knowledge comes later, if not all, then some. An important amount.” (pg. 251)
“She wept now, silently, for herself and for the girl. Her hands rested on either side of her on the soft boards of the bench.
We do not belong to ourselves alone, she wanted to say, but there was no one to speak to.” (pg. 355)
In regards to The Orchardist, the word “classic” has been used in connection with this one, alongside the names Steinbeck and other great American novelists. I believe this has earned its rightful place with them (it is even better than some of them, I think). It is more than worthy enough to be studied and discussed in English classes. I can think of very few modern day novels that could stand the test of time to become classics.
With The Orchardist, Amanda Coplin may have just written such a book.
5+ stars out of 5
Thank you, thank you, thank you to TLC Book Tours and Harper Perennial for sending me a copy of this novel in exchange for only my honest review. I was not otherwise compensated for this post.
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