book reviews by Althea

At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracy Chevalier ***

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At the Edge of the Orchard
At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read 4 of Chevalier’s other books, and liked them all, so I picked this one up even though none of the description’s keywords triggered any of my particular interests. It’s an interesting book… or, almost, two books. The story is sharply split, and I’m not sure the division works that well.

In the first quarter of the book, we meet a Westward-bound pioneer family who have run out of steam and settled in the swamps of Ohio. (I didn’t even know there was a swamp in Ohio:…). James Goodenough was brought up growing trees; it’s what he knows and loves. There’s a rule that says he has to grow 50 fruit trees to lay legal claim to the land he’s farming, but his desire to succeed in planting an orchard goes beyond a technicality. Unfortunately, a swamp isn’t the best place to grow apple trees. Even worse, his wife, Sadie, is an alcoholic slattern. Any affection she may have once had for her husband has long-since eroded. Worn down by grief and hard living, she’s become a bitter, backstabbing woman who’s more than willing to cut off her nose to spite her face, and destroy everything her husband values.

After a violent tragedy, the book skips forward in years, and follows the young son of the Goodenough family, Robert, who, we quickly learn, left his family behind and hasn’t heard from any of them for decades. He lives a rootless, itinerant lifestyle, finally falling in with a British man who is employed collecting seeds and saplings to send back to England, where American plants – especially redwoods and sequoias – have become the rage on wealthy patrons’ estates. Apparently the love of trees is in the Goodenough blood, as Robert eagerly apprentices himself, learning about botany along the way.
However, there’s a situation yet to come involving Robert’s sometimes-lover Molly, and his long-lost sister. More tragedy waits in the offing.

The strongest parts of the book are the historical details. I enjoyed the portrayal of the historical John Chapman (known as Johnny Appleseed), the details of early redwood/sequoia tourism, and all the bits about apple varieties. The seed collector, William Lobb, was a real person (…) and his story was simply fascinating.

However, as I said earlier, I didn’t think the book was divided well. The first part was too long to feel like an introduction, but too short to feel like an equal part of the book. The ends of both parts of the story veered over an edge into melodrama. The characters aren’t very nuanced – they’re either extremely sympathetic or not-even-slightly sympathetic, and come very close to falling into stereotypes (the whore with a heart of gold, the bitter shrew, the stolid frontiersman, &c).

Overall, I did enjoy the book, but I don’t feel that it’s one of Chevalier’s best.

Many thanks to Viking and NetGalley for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinion is solely my own.

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