Mixed thoughts about The Orchardist, the debut novel of author Amanda Coplin. The book has been widely reviewed and is well regarded and appropriately so. Coplin establishes herself as an emerging talent and her book is readable and engaging. I struggled at times to relate to her characters, but I also think that is by the author's design and is largely the point of the book: characters struggling to relate to one another while burdened with their own personal histories. I finished this book a few weeks ago and still think about it from time to time.
Coplin's narration, at times detached, fits her characters. None were inclined to readily reveal emotions and motives. Talmadge, her protagonist, begins the novel at the turn of the twentieth century, living a solitary and lonely existence, tending his orchard in the remote Wenatchee Valley in what was then the new state of Washington. (Coplin herself was raised here and the local landscape plays an important role in the novel). Talmadge’s life changes irreversibly when two young girls, pregnant and ragged, appear at his remote orchard. The girls have a feral quality – refusing to speak, come near, or even directly look at Talmadge, who leaves food and blankets on his porch for the girls while he leaves the cabin to work in the orchard. Only when he departs will the girls approach the things they need to survive.
Talmadge, we learn, lost both his parents by the time he reached his early teens and was left alone with the orchard and younger sister. One day his sister wandered into the orchard and disappeared without a trace. Motivated by his solitude and haunted by the loss of his sister, Talmadge becomes a patient and devout protector of the girls, especially Della (for reasons that are important to the plot). Della and the other girl, Jane, had escaped from a sadistic and deranged man who exploited them for his pleasure and profit in his crude and cruel frontier brothel. Subjected to unspeakable abuse, Della and Jane meet Talmadge after they fled the outpost while avoiding settlements for fear that they would be discovered and returned to their abuser.
As events unfold, Talmadge becomes the de facto guardian of Della as well as Angelene, the surviving infant of the two pregnant girls. His relationship with Della is the source of much of my ambivalence about The Orchardist. Coplin sets forth an intriguing story in beautiful prose, but I keep wondering why Talmadge continued to reach out to Della, a troubled girl and young woman who desperately needed a hand, but who repeatedly refused to take it. Meanwhile, Agelene wants and needs a connection to Della, who refuses it, and provides devotion to Talmadge, who nonetheless remains detached because of his frustrated attempts to rescue Della from herself. Each of these characters struggle for needs they don't fully understand and fully realize and that is both the frustration and reward of the novel.
In the end, this struggle is what makes me remember the story and causes me to think about how this same problem seems to play out in our own lives or the lives of people we care about. While I struggled to fully empathize with Talmadge and Della and wished they would come to their senses, Coplin’s detached style allows readers to dig into the bigger issues of struggling, damaged souls attempting to find their way. Solidly recommend.