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What an extraordinary talent Tracy Chevalier has for creating a sense of place. In Girl with a Pearl Earring it was the cobblestoned streets and damp cellars of Holland; in Remarkable Creatures it was the natural world, and in this, her eighth novel, Chevalier takes us helter-skelter, from the first sentence, into the world of apple orchards.
They were fighting over apples again. Little do we know, although we find out quickly enough, what a world of pain is contained in those few innocuous words. James and Sadie Goodenough eke out a living from a small apple orchard in Ohio, in a place attractively called the Black Swamp, during the tough years of early 19th-century pioneer life.
The Goodenoughs are devoted to apples for very different reasons — James, a good man doing his best, is trying to grow more "eaters"; his increasingly alcoholic wife Sadie wants more "spitters" from which to grow applejack.
This book is, for much of it, ineffably sad, an almost translucent sadness of lives gone wrong, hopes and dreams disappointed and deaths of children from swamp-fever. There are also other uncomfortable ripples, including the disquieting presence of the apple-tree distributor, John Chapman — a character based on the real-life Johnny Appleseed.
Of the Goodenoughs' children, only Robert has an interest in becoming an orchardist, and he is himself the product of a secret liaison.
As the dominoes start to fall towards an inevitable tragedy, Robert runs from what he has witnessed and from the continuing shadows of the past.
After the destruction of the "family", such as it was, it is Robert's life we follow as he travels west to California, where he meets an eccentric Cornish plant collector, William Lobb, in the middle of a grove of giant sequoias.
Recognising a fellow tree lover, Lobb offers Robert work, and in this second part of the book much of the plot is driven by letters from Robert to his siblings, recounting his adventures, and letters from his sister Martha to him.
The letters fatefully miss each other by weeks, or months or years. Somewhat adrift in the world, Robert becomes adept at avoiding commitment until his sister and his occasional lover Molly prove to him that perhaps, after all, family is worth something.
In the novel the themes of the giant tree and the tiny apple seed mirror the themes of the massive colonisation of North America by individuals, all playing their part in a bigger picture. The large and the small themes work as point and counterpoint throughout the book, which closely resembles an orchestral composition with its rises and falls.
There are also lovely vignettes of smaller relationships — Robert's with his grumpy grey horse, for instance, the two dour outcasts who come to an understanding of each other's ways, and Robert's somewhat vexed relationship with Lobb, who comes and goes as he pleases.
With its different parts and styles the book has an ambitious structure, and, much as I loved the story, the structure doesn't always work. There can be a slight discomfort in falling into a story that is being told in a certain way, only to find the trajectory has been altered.
However, that said, there was much to enjoy and much rich material to savour in the novel. That, along with the deft weaving of fact and fiction created such a vivid story that when Robert and his Molly finally made their escape to England, baby and Golden Pippin seeds in tow, I felt as if I'd travelled Robert's journey from the Black Swamp to the open ocean with him every step of the way and you can't really ask for more than that.
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Tracy Chevalier's picture of the world of 19th-century At the Edge of the Orchard review: Tracy Chevalier's engrossing family drama In Girl with a Pearl Earring it was the cobblestoned.
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As with her earlier work, such as "Girl With a Pearl Earring," this is an eminently readable book. It gives us the minutiae of everyday life and an evocative, almost visceral response to the.
Recently, Tracy Chevaliers novel The Girl with the Pearl Earring and its film adaptation by Peter Webber placed a focus on the subject of Dutch genre painting, reaching an unusually broad audience of readers and cinemagoers.
The portrait The Girl with the Pearl, painted by Ian Vermeer van Delft () around / provided the inspiration.