Being a massive Tracy Chevalier fan I am hugely indebted to Love Reading for providing a reader panel review copy of At the Edge of the Orchard which will be published by Borough Press on 8th March 2016 in ebook, hardback and paperback. It will be available from Harper Collins, Love Reading, Amazon and all good bookshops.
In Ohio in 1838, James and Sadie Goodenough are scratching a living in the Black Swamp where both people and apple trees live a highly precarious life. In the violence of their lives, son Robert has a different path to tread.
It took me a few pages to settle in to reading this as I found I needed to attune myself to a new situation and new set of characters from Tracy Chevalier and initially I didn’t think I was going to enjoy it as much as her other novels. Once I got into the new rhythm, however, I decided that At the Edge of the Orchard is, quite simply, a magnificent book. The quality of writing transports the reader to a different era and is so well researched that the reader lives the history alongside the characters. The descriptions of the trees and apple cultivation give depth and interest to what is, already, a totally captivating story. Tracy Chevalier knows how to conjure the senses with pitch perfection. I could feel the mud, see the trees, hear the songs, smell the applejack on Sadie’s breath and, importantly, taste the apples.
I thought the title was magnificent. It put me in mind of the Garden of Eden as each character strives to make something out of a life in the Black Swamp, but is constrained by their behaviour and attitudes so that paradise can’t be reached. Consequently, the Goodenough family are always at the edge of the orchard.
I found the early stages of the book quite brutal and so affecting. All the characters are flawed and so beautifully depicted. Sadie is an incredible creation. I loathed her completely but sympathised with her bitterness, her sadness and her desire for affection, especially from her children. She had my empathy too. It was almost a relief when the focus of the book moved to Robert.
The framework of At the Edge of the Orchard is so intelligent and well constructed. Using Sadie’s own voice early on separately among the rest of the text isolated her even more from the family and I found the later letters that advance the plot in Robert’s story heartbreaking.
There’s a darkness and almost claustrophobic feel despite Robert’s attempt to keep moving in the great outdoors but there’s some light too so that the balance feels just right. I have to admit to shedding a tear or two towards the end of the story where there is both optimism and sadness. What I think Tracy Chevalier does so well is to show the reader humanity in all its forms in a way that doesn’t sanitise real life struggle.
At the Edge of the Orchard is now another of Tracy Chevalier’s books that I loved, admired and feel privileged to have read.
You’ll find other reviews from Love Reading panel members here.