This stunning debut novel was my book club’s selection for this month. William Talmadge’s life is a quiet one, tending his apple and apricot trees, selling his produce in town. His movements as he inspects his trees, grafts a branch, fixes coffee are slow and deliberate, well-suited to the pace of life in rural Washington State at the end of the 19th century. When two girls show up, both pregnant and starving, he feeds and protects them. They are feral, too fearful to come close, grabbing the plates of food and withdrawing to the woods to eat.
A nurturing man, Talmadge has created this orchard starting with the two ailing apple trees that he and his mother and sister found on the land back in 1857. His mother passed only three years later, and he cared for his sister until she wandered off into the woods only two years after that, and not found again. He searched for the 17-year-old, helped by his friend, Clee, a mute Nez Perce, leader of a band of horse wranglers who stopped in Talmadge’s valley a couple of times a year.
There are many silences in this book: Clee’s muteness, the sisters’ refusal to talk to Talmadge, the secrets later that blossom and spread. Later, when Talmadge has lost one of the girls, “a kind of vacancy, a silence, hung around him, like a mantle on his shoulders.” And later, sitting at a campfire with Clee, Talmadge reflects on the sound of the horses:
The sound was loud and soft at the same time, like the sound upon which other sound was built. You didn’t hear the horses until you listened for them; and then they were very loud. Already Talmadge was becoming used to them. How that presence equated with silence until it was gone, and then you understood what silence really was.
I was entranced by the beauty and power of the prose, feeling as though I could happily drown in the luscious paragraphs, the startling turn of phrase, the unexpected thrust. Part 1, the first 90 pages, simply blew me away. After that, the story loses some momentum, but by then I wanted to follow Talmadge’s story to the end. There are some flaws in the book, which I will mention since this is a blog about the craft of writing (usually), but let me reinforce that this is a beautiful book.
Though the members of my book club disagreed about some things—one person thought the girls’ background was preposterous given the time period while others of us found it believable—we all agreed that other than Talmadge the characters were rather flat. We just didn’t see enough of them beyond a single dimension. The one other character who seems to be developed, the younger of the two girls, struck some of us as inconsistent and not plausible.
We also found the remainder of the book, after Part 1, choppy. To some extent that came from the very short chapters in the later parts, some only a page or a half page or even a quarter of a page. Even the longer chapters are only 3-5 pages. The short bursts of text advanced the plot in flashes, without the sustained narrative of the first part. In some places, it felt a bit padded, leading me to wonder if the book started as a 90-page novella that was then stretched into a book. I also thought the last part should be cut entirely. A brief summary of the orchard’s life in the following decades, it raises many questions that it does not answer. I thought perhaps the author loved the place and the characters too much to let them go.
At a book release party today, several of us authors were talking about how essential a critique group is in the development of a manuscript. We need other eyes to tell us when we are being long-winded or too much in love with our own sentences. If I were editing this book, I would have trouble cutting it (other than that last part) because of being myself so in love with Coplin’s sentences. Still, I think it would have benefited from losing about a hundred pages. To our surprise, even the slack parts maintained the suspense, but one person astutely noted that the author shows us each character’s vulnerability and how each one is at risk, making us fear for them.
The Orchardist is not just a story of silences but also a story of solitude and how we communicate and what we owe to each other. In other words, exactly the kind of story I like. I especially loved the descriptions of Della learning to ride and to communicate with the horses. It reminded me of my struggle to learn to ride in my fifties and how the great benefit to me was learning to “listen” to the horse’s language.
Despite my few caveats, I recommend this book. It will take you away to another time and place, and you will be reluctant to return.
Have you read this novel? What did you think?