At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier
The film adaptation of Girl with a Pearl Earring was released my freshman year in college (I think January of 2004), and for one of my Much Ado about English (the intro course to my major) projects, I wrote a comparison of the film with the book (spoiler: the book is so much better). Thus began my craze for Tracy Chevalier novels. My favorite to this day is Falling Angels, though I also very much like Remarkable Creatures, The Lady and the Unicorn, and Girl with a Pearl Earring. I’ve decided that Chevalier is a terrific writer, though some of her subject areas in her novels are not always of the most interest to me personally. I would place Burning Bright, The Virgin Blue, and At the Edge of the Orchard in the latter category.
At the Edge of the Orchard is a two-fold story with two different timelines. The first takes place in 1838, when James and Sadie Goodenough move from the East to the expansive wilds of the west in search of a new life with their children. Their wagon gets stuck and stalls in the swamps of Ohio, so the family chooses to settle there. James is obsessed with apples and the husbandry in developing a rare strain, while Sadie turns to the applejack and an alcoholic haze. Theirs is a story of deep dysfunction and disappointment.
The second storyline takes place in 1853 when the youngest son Robert is trying to eke out a living in Gold Rush California after wandering throughout the United States. He ultimately meets up with naturalist William Lobb who is collecting sequoias for English cultivation and growth and becomes a partner in the seedling business. There, he also reunites with Molly, a cheerful woman who occasionally turns to prostitution to support herself, and he must decide whether to pick up the family pieces back home or create a new life in California.
This is a genuinely interesting story, especially the horticultural piece. I never knew about William Lobb or the sequoias in England. The part that didn’t work for me was the Sadie-and-James story, which actually bogged down the narrative flow quite a bit. There was a lot of family melodrama (which you all know I do not have the patience for), and the second half of the book is much more emotionally resonant than the first half. There’s really not a “big” reveal that the book teases, so don’t get your hopes up about a big mystery. I’m glad I read this book, but I was more than happy to send it back to the library without a trace of regret. On to The Last Runaway, which is my last unread Chevalier novel!