The Orchardist (2012) by Amanda Coplin is another book on Huffington Post’s list of 21 Books From the Last 5 Years That Every Woman Should Read. I’m slowly making my way through this list, and I’m grateful for the recommendations. I wasn’t sure what to expect with The Orchardist, and even now that I’ve read it, I have some mixed feelings. There is no question that this is an impressively written, very original story, with remarkably drawn characters. The orchard as a place, and the story itself, are all memorable and meaningful.
Talmadge is a solitary man in his fifties, living on an isolated orchard in central Washington at the turn of the 20th Century. His mother died when he was a teenager and his younger sister mysteriously disappeared when she was a young woman, leaving him completely alone. Talmadge keeps himself busy by nurturing his orchard and hauling his crops to town to sell. The only person remotely close to him is the town healer, Caroline Middey. He sometimes eats dinner with her when he comes to town.
Then two young, very pregnant teenagers show up at his orchard. He undoubtedly sees his missing sister in these two lost souls, and he does what he can for them. At this point, I thought I knew what was coming: In the security and safety of the orchard, as well as the quiet care of Talmadge, the girls could recover from their traumatic past and an unconventional, but loving family could be formed.
I was wrong. Coplin takes a much more realistic route. The girls’ past comes back to haunt them, and the significant abuse and trauma they suffered affects their ability to form relationships and control their lives. Talmadge has sincere compassion for the girls and does what he can for them, but it’s impossible to erase what they’d gone through in their formative years. Della is the young girl that we get to know best and the narrative follows her for years. This was probably one of the most realistic portrayals of the long-term effects of abuse that I’ve ever read in fiction.
In many ways, Coplin’s writing reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. Her story is very tied to the land; the characters are quiet and stoic; and you can never guess what is coming. Once I realized this novel wasn’t necessarily going to have the happy ending I was expecting, I read the rest of the book with a sense of dread. I was afraid of what would happen next and anticipating the worst. That’s probably where my mixed feelings come in. The second half of the book felt like the slow destruction of people’s lives. There wasn’t much to keep me reading. Sure, I was curious what would happen to the characters, but I couldn’t see a way out for them and hopelessness is no fun. So, although I appreciated the writing and I was drawn in at the beginning, it was harder to read through until the end. If the ending could have sustained the tension that I felt in the beginning, I would probably give it five stars. As it is, I’d still recommend The Orchardist, but maybe it’s not for everyone.
“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.” (124)
“It was only too bad that to gossip and support mean ideas was easier and more enjoyable, really, than to keep quiet and know in silence that the true story can never be told, articulated in a way that will tell the whole truth.” (378)
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