I received this book for free from the publisher / TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
Published by Harper on August 2012
Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
Source: the publisher / TLC Book Tours
Goodreads | Amazon
At the turn of the twentieth century, in a rural stretch of the Pacific Northwest, a reclusive orchardist, William Talmadge, tends to apples and apricots as if they were loved ones. A gentle man, he's found solace in the sweetness of the fruit he grows and the quiet, beating heart of the land he cultivates. One day, two teenage girls appear and steal his fruit from the market; they later return to the outskirts of his orchard to see the man who gave them no chase. Feral, scared, and very pregnant, the girls take up on Talmadge's land and indulge in his deep reservoir of compassion. Just as the girls begin to trust him, men arrive in the orchard with guns, and the shattering tragedy that follows will set Talmadge on an irrevocable course not only to save and protect but also to reconcile the ghosts of his own troubled past.
Transcribing America as it once was before railways and roads connected its corners, Amanda Coplin weaves a tapestry of solitary souls who come together in the wake of unspeakable cruelty and misfortune.
(from the inside flap)
In 1857, when Talmadge was just nine years old, his mother took him and his sister to Washington after their father was killed in a mining accident in the Oregon Territory. In Washington, his mother started growing apples in a small orchard. Three years later, Talmadge’s mother died of a respiratory disease, and five years after that Talmadge’s sister disappeared in the surrounding woods and was never found. When Talmadge’s story opens in The Orchardist, he has been growing apples in this orchard for 40 years, and has expanded the orchard to include more kinds of apples, as well as apricots. With no family and only one or two close friends, Talmadge has made the orchard his life and his family, so to speak. He mostly lives as a recluse, only going to the nearest town to sell his fruit and buy supplies. All of that changes when two pregnant, teenage runaways show up in his orchard. Talmadge takes them in, as much as they will allow, and begins to think that he might be able to atone for his sister’s loss (and maybe have some kind of family again) by taking care of the young girls. Tragedy prevents a happy ending, though, and the story follows the lives of Talmadge and those closely involved with him over the next 20 years.
The Orchardist is beautifully written, and I am truly impressed with this book as Coplin’s debut novel. It isn’t a fast paced novel by any means; it is more character-based than plot-based. It is meant to be taken in slowly, I think, and although I read it in two days, there were many times when I put it down in order to appreciate the prose and the development of the characters. The Orchardist made me think about familial relationships, friendships, love, loss, how we treat one another, and how the decisions we make affect us and the people around us. It teaches the lesson that sometimes the things we don’t say or do can end up being just as important as the things we do say or do. The characters’ stories are oftentimes heartbreaking and gritty, but they’re told so beautifully and with redemption always an option. I was so frustrated with Talmadge’s indecision and silence, but I also understood it and sympathized with him. In fact, I sympathized with all of the main characters (aside from the man whom the two girls ran away from).
I loved the detailed descriptions of the land and Talmadge’s work in the orchard. I loved that the story was set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I have to admit that although I appreciate the technology we have and the ease it brings, I found myself thinking romantically of living in relatively simpler times without all of the noise and distractions. I wanted to dive into the book and watch the story unfold from the cover of the quiet, peaceful orchard. Coplin’s prose sucked me in and I wanted to stay there for a very long time.
The other thing about The Orchardist that really stood out for me was the idea that we never truly know people–not even those closest to us, and especially not those who are just acquaintances or total strangers. The characters in The Orchardist are constantly wondering what the others are thinking, how they feel, what they’re not saying…and it leads to a lot of confusion and wrong assumptions. It’s all very realistic. Going further, some friends and I often joke on Twitter with one another about this, and we like to “yell” at each other in jest, “YOU DON’T KNOW MY LIFE.” And even though we are just teasing one another, as friends, it is a largely true sentiment. When we (generally speaking) read or hear about things in the news, we tend to judge the people involved (in one way or another), but that really isn’t fair at all. We don’t know the people involved, we don’t know their history, we don’t know their emotions, we don’t know their thinking processes…we don’t know their lives. At one point in The Orchardist, one of the characters is in the news for committing a crime, and Coplin writes about the varying opinions of the community and how they act in response to what they read and hear. This is one of my favorite passages in the book:
All of Angelene’s classmates and their parents reading the newspaper, openmouthed, shaking their heads. It was impossible to say how many people thought they deserved it–You take up with trash, you get what you pay for, one Leavenworth citizen was quoted as saying, bizarrely–or how many people were shocked with them, grieved for them. 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. Even if it is better to be quiet, quietness will never reign. People talked, event the best of them.
How true and unfortunate.
I could probably ramble about The Orchardist all day and spend 2000 more words describing everything I loved about it. Instead, I’ll finish by highly recommending it. If you enjoy beautiful prose; if you enjoy reading about other places and times in history; if you enjoy meandering through books that take their time telling a good story, describing the landscape, and developing ideas and sympathetic characters…The Orchardist is for you. This is a great debut novel from Amanda Coplin, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.