Orchard: A Novel

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Montana 1948 comes the explosive story of an artist, his muse, and the staggering price they pay for their chance at immortality.

Sonja Skordahl, a Norwegian immigrant, came to America looking for a new life. Instead, she settled in Door County, Wisconsin, and married Henry House—only to find herself defined by her roles as wife and mother. Destiny lands Sonja in the studio of Ned Weaver, an internationally acclaimed painter. There she becomes more...

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Orchard: A Novel

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Montana 1948 comes the explosive story of an artist, his muse, and the staggering price they pay for their chance at immortality.

Sonja Skordahl, a Norwegian immigrant, came to America looking for a new life. Instead, she settled in Door County, Wisconsin, and married Henry House—only to find herself defined by her roles as wife and mother. Destiny lands Sonja in the studio of Ned Weaver, an internationally acclaimed painter. There she becomes more than his model and more than a mere object of desire; she becomes the most inspiring muse Ned has ever known, much to the chagrin of the artist’s wife. When both Ned and Henry insist on possessing Sonja, their jealousies threaten to erupt into violence—as she struggles to appease both men without sacrificing her hard-won sense of self.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“This book will leave you illuminated. . . . If there exists a literary equivalent to the artist’s play of light on a canvas, then Larry Watson has mastered it. . . . Every scene of Orchard is painted with deliberate, vivid strokes of radiance. . . . Watson’s sparse words and controlled prose turn a remote town and four lonely characters into a remarkable tale.”
—Baltimore Sun

“Clear-eyed, close-to-the-bone, inherently dramatic and endlessly implicative . . . Watson’s insights into his characters not only bring them to life, but also shed light on the nature of art, love and marriage.”
Los Angeles Times Book Review

“An enthralling, thought-provoking read . . . This is a story that comes together at its own internal pace, and when whole understanding dawns, it is with clear power.”
The Denver Post

“[A] powerful tale . . . captivating and haunting, and very hard to put down.”
The Washington Post Book World

The Washington Post
Larry Watson's new novel is the kind of book that could be difficult to finish, because so many unhappy events take place between its covers. Instead it is both captivating and haunting, and very hard to put down. Orchard reveals only a little about apples, despite its title, but a lot about marriage, human relations and the mysteriously heartbreaking intimacies and distances in love and in art. — Reeve Lindbergh
USA Today
Despite its title, Larry Watson's beautifully written and textured novel, The Orchard, is not about growing apples, although that figures in the plot. It's about great art, and how cruel, selfish people can be brilliant artists. It's about loss and grief and love, all played out on a rocky peninsula in northern Wisconsin half a century ago. — Bob Minzesheimer
The New York Times
Watson shifts the focus among the three main characters while jumping backward and forward in time. He also occasionally strays from his story to update the reader on minutiae like the fate of the bullet Sonja could not fire at Henry's horse. Best of all, Watson expertly creates characters whose actions are at once inevitable and surprising. — Don O'Keefe
Publishers Weekly
Showing a deep maturity of thought and craft, Watson (Montana 1948; White Crosses) surpasses himself in his sixth novel, an uncompromising, perfectly calibrated double portrait of two couples in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s. Ned Weaver is a famous artist, Henry House an orchard keeper. Ned, like many creative people, is self-absorbed and cruel to his adoring wife, Harriet, with whom he has two grown daughters. Harriet, ignoring his serial adultery, has long ago accepted that Ned's art is what matters most in the world; she has "rehearsed her role so well that not even she could discern a difference between performance and belief." Henry House and his wife, Sonja, are younger than the Weavers; Henry was raised picking apples, and Sonja came from Norway to Wisconsin when she was 12. As the novel begins, they are grieving the death of their young son, who collapsed mysteriously one summer day just outside Sonja's kitchen window. Invited to pose for Weaver, Sonja accepts, not for the money or because she is attracted to Weaver, though her motives are unclear even to herself. When Henry finds out from his cronies that Sonja has been posing in the nude, he is wild with jealousy and plots revenge. Ned's paintings of Sonja inevitably call to mind Andrew Wyeth's famous Helga series. But whatever the novel's inspiration, it is in no way limited by the constraints of fact. Sentences and chapters unfurl with a sense of inevitability, and the narrative possesses an uncommon integrity. When Ned first paints Sonja nude, he marvels at her beatific poise: "The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art." Watson composes this marvelous novel with the same assurance. Agent, Ralph Vicinanza. (Aug. 19) Forecast: Watson has won his share of literary laurels, but his latest novel could be a contender for one of the major prizes. With a bit of handselling, it might match the commercial success of his previous big seller, Montana 1948. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Set in Wisconsin's rural Door County, Larry Watson's ORCHARD (Random. 2003. ISBN 0-375-50723-X. $24.95; pap. 2004. ISBN 0-375-75854-2. $13.95) combines art and passion in a tale reminiscent of Andrew Wyeth's "Helga" pictures. Sonja, a Scandinavian immigrant whose marriage is unraveling, models for painter Ned Weaver. Watson's evocative prose captures the heat of a Wisconsin summer, the wind of a blowing snowstorm, and the grittiness of sand on bare skin. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The art world is the only winner in this bleak look at an unhappy quartet: a painter, his model, and their spouses. Opening shot: a man with a pistol sliding pell-mell down a snow-covered orchard to reach an artist's studio. But Watson (Laura, 2000, etc.) plays with chronology in dizzying fashion, and that opening is a prelude to the climax. So let's back up. In 1946, Henry House marries Sonja Skordahl in rural Wisconsin. Though Sonja has yet to master the nuances of her second language (her dirt-poor Norwegian parents shipped her to the US when she was 12), she understands from the get-go that Henry can be as "unyielding as stone." He is a conventional man, an apple-grower like his father, and an outdoorsman. Character is destiny. If only Henry had sold his horse, Buck, at Sonja's urging, it would not have caused their little boy's death. In his grief, though, Henry turns to Buck, not Sonja. There's a dumb accident, again involving Buck, and Henry can't work. How to pay the bills? Secretly, Sonja poses nude for the internationally renowned Ned Weaver, whose pattern is to bed and discard his models in short order. But Sonja is different. Behind her sorrowful beauty is a secret he can't unlock. She represents the supreme challenge of his career, and he exercises patience, both as artist and philanderer. Meanwhile, tongues wag. Henry's equally conventional sister Phyllis scolds Sonja, but then, in a moving about-face and moment of transcendent sisterhood, accepts her credo. Sonja is not the property of either man: "I belong to myself." Thinking differently, Henry ruins all their lives, though Ned's wife Harriet, his faithful disciple, sells his paintings of Sonja for a cool four million.For a character-driven work, this is a disappointing bunch. Henry is a bore, Ned a stereotype of the artist as egomaniac, and Harriet short-changed. Only Sonja stirs the soul. Watson's sixth is graced by his customary fine detail work, but it's not enough. Agent: Ralph Vicinanza
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780375758546
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 6/8/2004
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 246
  • Sales rank: 940,331
  • Product dimensions: 5.13 (w) x 8.01 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Larry Watson is the author of In a Dark Time, Montana 1948, Justice, White Crosses, and Laura. He has won the Milkweed Fiction Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, the Mountain and Plains Booksellers Association Regional Award, and many other literary prizes. Watson and his wife, Susan, live in Plover, Wisconsin.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Read an Excerpt

Henry House stayed out of the orchard’s open aisles and instead kept close to the apple trees as he tried to work his way unnoticed down the hill. This meant he could barely rise out of a crouch, ducking under one low gnarly branch after another. The new November snow further complicated matters. It was just enough to cover the few apples that still lay on the ground, and when Henry stepped on one it was likely to burst under his weight, causing him to skid on the slick snow and apple mush underfoot. Each time this happened, apple scent rose up to his nostrils, and in his mind he heard again his father’s old reproach: Watch where you walk.

The apple trees gave out well short of the cabin, but the final eighty yards were no easier to negotiate. The scrub trees and brush thickened, the hill steepened sharply, and Henry had to dig in the edges of his boots and descend sideways to keep from hurtling headlong down the slope.

He had taken no more than three steps, however, when he lost what little foothold he had. He wasn’t sure if it was another apple he’d stepped on or a pocket of wet leaves, but his foot slid out from under him, and he fell hard on his backside. In the next instant, he was sliding down the hill with the speed of a child on a sled, threatening to slam feetfirst into the very building he had hoped to creep up on.

For all the suddenness of Henry’s fall, it did not feel to him, in those first seconds, so much like an accident as a fulfillment—so this is what I’ve been heading for.

As he bumped and skidded down the hill, he still had the presence of mind to do two things: He held his right arm—the arm that had never healed right—over his head to keep it from hitting a rock or snagging a fallen tree limb. Second, Henry managed to clap his left arm over his mackinaw pocket and keep it closed, thereby preventing the pistol from slipping out into the snow.

With his hands thus positioned, Henry couldn’t do much to check his descent or to protect the rest of his body from banging and scraping its way down the slope. And yet with that one arm held aloft, Henry felt a little like a rodeo rider, which meant the earth itself was the bucking horse he had to ride.

Weaver had never known a model with this woman’s talent for stillness. And talent was the word for it. For that she did not have to be taught or trained. She did not have to be reminded or cajoled. When told to pose in a particular position, she assumed it immediately and held it without protest. Without protest? Beyond that. She took to motionlessness eagerly, as if stasis were her natural state and she had been waiting for a reason to return to it.

Furthermore, her stillness had a quality as amazing to him now as when she first posed for him, though Weaver was at a loss to put a name to it. It had nothing to do with lethargy or languor. She did not relax into her pose the way some models did, leaving their bodies in order to let their minds wander. Weaver hated that, and he could tell when it happened. Energy and a degree of muscularity left the body. You wanted stillness, but not the repose of a cadaver. Even when she was in a pose—lying back on the bed, for example—that would have allowed her to relax so completely she could fall asleep, she never did. She was still, but she was there.

Perhaps even more remarkable was her lack of self-consciousness about her body. Weaver knew she was not immodest or vain, yet she disrobed in front of him as openly as . . . what was Weaver thinking? As his wife? Harriet had her own art: finding the odd angle or obstruction that permitted her to undress out of his sight. Back when she modeled for him, she often used the screen and stepped out draped in the sheet he provided. But this woman . . . When Weaver first told her she could undress behind the screen, she looked at him as if he were an idiot. “I’m going to be naked before you, yet I should hide myself while I get that way?”

She undressed like his daughters. That was it. She undressed as easily and efficiently as Emma and Betsy had when they were young and he’d supervised their baths. A task lay before them that required they be unclothed, so they quickly attended to the matter. The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art.

Occasionally, Weaver’s curiosity—or was it his perversity?—led him to test the limits of her talent. He devised poses difficult to hold, like this one, which required her to kneel on the bed but keep her body’s jointed parts strictly aligned and perfectly angled: head in line with shoulders and hips, arms straight down at her sides, knees bent at ninety degrees. Weaver wanted all the curves in this pose to come only from the parts of her she could not control—from those magnificent breasts; that gently rounded bulge just above her pubis; the flare of her hips; the long, slight swell of each thigh—as if her eroticism were asserting itself without her consent. Weaver thought that forcing her to hold that pose—how her trapezius muscles must have knotted themselves with the effort of holding her head up, how her knees must have ached!—might break her down, might force her to ask him for relief. It did not. Weaver had also hoped, when he first conceived of the pose, not merely out of a mild malice but out of aesthetic intent as well, that it might at last reveal the secret of her. It did not.

Sonja had often wondered why all men carried their rifles in a similar manner. Had they been taught? Had they simply copied other men—their fathers, as their fathers had before them? But on that day, when she walked to the barn with Henry’s Winchester cradled in the crook of her arm, she realized, given the gun’s configuration, its length and weight, there were only a few ways to carry it. It was the same with babies. Sonja had heard people talk of an instinct for motherhood, and she had silently scoffed. If one wished to hold a baby, one simply lifted it, without thought or education and certainly without knowledge in the blood. Babies and rifles—their shapes furnished the necessary instruction: Carry us this way.

And though she would have needed instruction to tell her where on the animal to press the muzzle of the gun, her husband had provided that lesson on many occasions. He told her about the small brain that horses had, though Henry always said it with affection, and if the horse himself were present, Henry would tap with his index finger that white diamond high on the animal’s forehead where the hair seemed to grow in a different direction from the surrounding russet coat. At Henry’s tap, the horse always blinked, and when the lids closed over those great liquid globes, Sonja waited in vain to see tears squeezed out. Yes, if you could only cry, she thought; if you could only show remorse . . .

She stood in the barn’s chaffy dark, her nostrils stinging with the smell of dung, mildew, kerosene, and sweat-soaked leather. She levered a shell into the chamber, and the horse, as if he heard the metallic slide of the Winchester as another animal’s question, nickered an answer from his stall. Over here, I’m over here.

Perhaps if she had faced the horse head-on, if she had stood a few feet away from the stall, raised the rifle to her shoulder, and taken aim—there, at the point of that white diamond behind which the horse’s brain made its horsy connections—perhaps if Sonja had acted quickly in this way, she would have been able to pull the trigger. Instead, she entered the adjoining stall, kicked her way through the loose straw, and reached the rifle over the wooden bar to aim accurately. In this narrow space, the horse gave off so much heat Sonja half-expected to see his body glow. When the gun’s muzzle touched the horse’s head, his ear twitched the way it would if a breeze blew down the length of the rifle barrel. His eye widened and rotated toward Sonja. A white rim showed around the eye like a sliver of crescent moon in the night sky. Then the horse stood still, as if he knew his duty was to make no move that might tremble Sonja’s will or throw off her aim.

She could not stop her ears to prepare for the explosion, so instead she tried, in her mind, to move away from this moment. And once she did, her determination wavered and then left her completely. What was the use? She could pull the trigger until the rifle was empty, but it would do nothing to bring warmth back to her little boy’s body or her husband’s heart.

Sonja pulled her finger out of the tiny steel hoop of the trigger guard and in the corner of the stall set the rifle down, unfired but with a shell still in the chamber and the hammer still back. She walked out of the barn and sneezed twice in the sudden sunlight.

Henry carried the rifle into the kitchen, where Sonja sat at the table peeling potatoes. He held the gun toward her as if it were an offering.

“What was this doing out in the barn?” The gun was just as she had left it, cocked and ready to fire.

Sonja did not look up from her work. The peelings fell into the garbage can she held between her knees. Each potato she sliced into quarters and dropped into a pot of water.

“Did you take it out there?” he asked.

There was still enough pale autumn sunlight left to illuminate all the room’s corners, but Sonja had turned on the overhead light to help her see any rotten spots on the potatoes.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Reading Group Guide

1. The author compares the novel’s form to an Impressionist painting. Where do you think this idea comes from? Does the form work?

2. How might Orchard’s nonchronological form be justified? How would the novel change if it were structured differently?

3. Much is made of possession and ownership in this novel; we see shifts in power among almost all of the characters. Discuss some of its manifestations or variations of the theme.

4. Why do you think Harriet Weaver stays with her husband? Do you understand her motivations? What would you do in her position?

5. Throughout Orchard, paintings are portrayed in vivid detail. How do these descriptions function in the novel?

6. It is clear that several of Watson’s characters undergo emotionally draining experiences. How do these characters change over the course of the novel?

7. What does Orchard say about the responsibility of the artist? Ned Weaver has a very definite view on the matter. Are readers likely to share his opinion?

8. What inspires Sonja to pose for Weaver? Do you think her reasons change? Does she harbor any regrets about her decision?

9. Is it enough to say that Henry House is jealous that his wife is posing for Ned Weaver, or are his feelings more complex?

10. What are some of the different attitudes toward art in the novel? Toward artists?

11. Would you pose for an artist?

12. How is a muse different from a model?

From the Hardcover edition.

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 29, 2006

    I guess it was a good enough book for me to at least finish it....

    This book was really bad. The characters were totally unbelievable, and the story was so depressing that I just wanted to die after having read it. It's a believable storyline, I suppose, but the characters were never developed enough to actually interest me. You have the typical jerkoff artist who doesn't care about anyone but himself, the stupid wife who hangs on his every action, the beautiful outsider who has family problems of her own and makes the dumb decision to pose nude for the artist even though it seemed like she really didn't have to do it, but hey, maybe she was bored.... I can't rate it as Poor since I was actually able to finish reading the entire book, but I was very unsatisfied and felt that I had wasted my time. I've already given the book away - maybe someone else can find something good in it.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 5, 2009

    No text was provided for this review.

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