Tracy Chevalier’s novel ‘At the Edge of the Orchard’ is the last of the three books I have purchased from the second hand bookshop (reviews for the other two are already on the website) I am a huge fan of Tracy Chevalier and usually really enjoy reading her books as an interesting fictionalized look into the historical circumstances of the setting she chose to write about. However, as much as it pains me to write this, I did not enjoy this one as much as I hoped I would. While some of the pillars of her writing are present in the novel and there was clearly a great deal of research done, I could not get into this novel at all.
I have heard about this novel a couple of years ago when my mom (another huge fan of Chevalier) has read it. From her description, I only remember that it was American pioneers and it was about people obsessed with apples. After reading the novel, I can tell you that this description is fairly accurate. The story follows the Goodenough family as they try to settle into muddy, grim and inhospitable swamps of Ohio. The parents of the family, Sadie and James do not like each other anymore and are frequently cruel and hateful to each other. James is obsessed with the idea of growing fifty apples, while Sadie is almost always drunk and doesn’t do much to help. They are often struck with the worst pain of parents, losing their children and at the time we are introduced to them, most of them have already passed. The two important characters are Robert and Martha, two of their children. In fact, the first part of the novel is told from the perspective of James and Sadie, while the second half follows Robert and his life.
Speaking of structure, the difference between the two parts of the novel is so stark it felt almost disjointed. The atmosphere in the first half is so dark and hopeless I almost gave up reading the book. While I can understand that the time and setting of the novel (1830s-1850s in the USA) did not allow for a lot of joy and was brutal on the pioneers, the majority of the characters, especially adults were just so unlikable and horrible I struggled to make myself care about them. I am glad I continued, however, as the part focusing on Robert and people in his life was far more positive, full of life and overall lighter.
There are some events in the story that keep it going, but it seems that the novel focused more on the internal introspection of the main characters and their progress as people. James’ story is focused on his apples and his overall work to be better at growing apples while keeping the family together somewhat. On the other hand, Sadie did not have much of a character and I found myself honestly hating her. Without spoiling too much of the actual plot, I will say that Sadie was mostly there when it was needed to break or ruin things for other people. Additionally, except Robert, Goodenough children did not have much of a character development and were painted over with a very large brush and thrown into the backside, briefly mentioned here and there. In addition to Goodenoughs, other notable characters were Johnny Appleseed who was somewhat interesting, but not really significant to the story at large, and William Lobb, an eccentric plant collector who I really enjoyed reading about and who had a wonderful relationship with Robert. I was quite disappointed that there was almost no mention of indigenous people that the characters would surely come into contact with. They are mentioned only in passing a few times and without any real influence. As the indigenous population of the USA definitely played their part in the experience of pioneers, I felt this was quite an oversight.
My favorite character in the whole novel though was Molly. Although it was obvious from the moment she was introduced as a sex worker and cook that Robert sometimes had relations with that she would have a more significant role, I really enjoyed her cheerfulness and the impact she had on Robert and his way of thinking. She was presented as very open and eager person, but also just as a good person, without a bad bone in her body. In the sea of cheaters, liars, drinkers and just bad people throughout the book, she was indeed a breath of fresh air. I was not too obsessed with the presentation of female characters in the novel as they felt like they fell into a lot of tropes, and Molly somewhat jumped out of them.
I did have a big issue with the pacing of this novel. This is not a very long novel (my edition has 324 pages with a few pages of author’s notes at the end) but it took me forever to read it. At first, the story dragged on and it was a bit like I was stuck in Groundhog Day reading about the same day over and over again. This may as well been purposeful as a way to illustrate the pacing of the life in the given historical circumstances, but it simply did not work for me here. Robert’s part felt a bit better as there were more interesting and significant events in his adult life. I am not too interested in plants and flowers the way some of the characters from the novel are, but I did not enjoy the passages of explanations and descriptions of regions that Robert had to go through. I am not sure if Chevalier is also obsessed with trees and plants, but she has convinced me that her characters are.
At the end, I am glad I read this novel as I feel like I have learned a lot about the life of pioneers and their life and thinking. However, I found the novel a bit dull and without any real stakes as the main character, Robert was just floating about and it was only really close to the end that his actions starting having some consequences as he started settling a bit more. The ending, while positive and overall happy for the most of the ‘positive’ characters, felt quite anticlimactic. I kept reading the novel hoping that something extraordinary or interesting will happen, but that moment never happened.
I scored this novel 3/5. If you are interested in Chevalier’s writing, do not start with this novel as I am not sure you will want to read her other work. Instead, I would suggest ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’ or ‘Virgin Blue’ as they are far more successful.
Did you read this book? Did you read something else by Chevalier? What were your thoughts?