A Review of
The Orchardist : A Novel
Reviewed by Amber Baker.
Moving through the seasons of the earth and life, Amanda Coplin’s debut novel The Orchardist, raises questions about the purpose of being and the place of fate.
Coplin introduces us to a family torn apart and patched together. William Talmadge is a man with an orchard and little else. His father and mother both died when he was young, and his sister, Elsbeth, disappeared into the forests near their orchard. He is a man who is deliberate and wise with his time, and does not speak of the period of passionate grieving he suffered when Elsbeth left him. His life of solitude is interrupted when the two sisters Jane and Della roam onto his land. For the next two decades the lives of those who belong to the orchard are filled with tragedy and survival and ultimately their destinies.
The story is a hard one to read. One hopes against odds that the characters will eventually see hope and a way out of what seems a futile life. As the land has cycles though, the characters also continue to turn in on themselves. When a glimmer of possibility is upon them, the instance is snatched. Talmadge and his friend, Caroline Middey, bicker about attempting to be stern and force decisions on his charges. Is obedience involuntary brought out of them, or should they choose their path? Ultimately, one cannot make the girls do something they don’t want to do, is the argument. However, Coplin’s writing seems to insist regardless of forced compliance or trying to do the right thing through choosing, fate has already determined lives and set the course. In reality the end is determined and the future cannot be deterred.
The lack of choice and utter hopelessness nurtures the question, “Is there free will?” One could argue that it was the poor choices of a character that lead to her demise. Another could point out the unfairly meted-out tragedies given to a different character. Did the orchardist and those he cared for really have any choice in their lives or was it a train set to a destination that could be slowed and postponed, but never really stopped.
In reading the story I returned, again and again, to the parable of the Prodigal Son. A hopeful, patient, generous provider waits in anticipation for his child to come to sense and travel home. The father watches anxiously and is overjoyed when the child does return. A feast is set. All is right. In Coplin’s account, the child never returns. The child never repents nor hears the words of forgiveness. With the thought of how calamity never left the life of Talmadge, I wondered of the choices of the prodigal son in the parable. I read the parable assuming that the son came to a point of realizing he had to make a choice – die or return to his father. I have never read it thinking that the son had no choice. God had determined that the son would return and so the son did. To place that same logic on those who have heartrending lives is to say that God, or fate in the case of Coplin’s narrative, had decided to give someone a horrific existence. Echoes of Job’s search for meaning in his trials come into the conversation. Like Job, The Orchardist gives no answers about fairness or determination. It leaves behind the statement, “It just is.” It is up to the reader, and believer, to decide if “It just is” gives a satisfactory answer.
In reading the novel, I hoped that something would give and provide relief for the characters. There was nothing. The tragedies fell one after another, but opposed to feeling pity or sorrow for the characters, I felt nothing more than frustration towards them. They did not grow or learn from the events in their lives. When it seemed that perhaps a change might occur, that a light came into an eye, it vanished. The story trudged to its ending which ultimately fell flat. There was no alleviation from the suffering to those who had done nothing to deserve it, nor justice towards those who needed it. The dull ending drove the point harder than anything that there never was any hope to begin with.
In Coplin’s writing, there were two things that distracted from the story and both of them are mechanics. In her choice of dialogue, Coplin decided to not implement quotation marks except for one place where the story of Rapunzel is being read out loud. Therefore, the dialogue is mixed into the narrative and is occasionally difficult to pick out. The device felt strained and confusing. I was unsure if Coplin was attempting to relay a meaning in the lack of quotations or if it was purely a visual decision. Either way, the lack of punctuation would often distract me from the story. The other mechanic was the switching between stories and paragraph-long chapters. There are excellent storytellers who can jump between scenes and time. It causes the story to become suspenseful. One waits in anticipation of how those individual plots will meld into a singular, great conclusion. This did not happen. Instead of a smooth transition between each, or even a breathless, but paced, jump from story to story, the mixed plotlines jerked and wobbled as a train does station to station. I became disoriented and felt whiplashed without need.
Amanda Coplin’s The Orchardist tries to ask the great questions of why we exist and if there is any point to our decisions, hopes, and fears, but already assumed the answers from the outset. Set in a beautiful location and feel for a nostalgic time, it ultimately attempts to hide a dismal plotline in pretty sentences.