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The Forgetting Tree: A Novel

The Forgetting Tree: A Novel

3.8 5
by Tatjana Soli

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A New York Times Notable Book!

From Tatjana Soli, The New York Times bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters, comes a breathtaking novel of a California ranching family, its complicated matriarch, and the enigmatic caretaker who may destroy them

When Claire Nagy marries Forster Baumsarg, the only son of prominent California citrus ranchers,


A New York Times Notable Book!

From Tatjana Soli, The New York Times bestselling author of The Lotus Eaters, comes a breathtaking novel of a California ranching family, its complicated matriarch, and the enigmatic caretaker who may destroy them

When Claire Nagy marries Forster Baumsarg, the only son of prominent California citrus ranchers, she knows she's consenting to a life of hard work, long days, and worry-fraught nights. But her love for Forster is so strong, she turns away from her literary education and embraces the life of the ranch, succumbing to its intoxicating rhythms and bounty until her love of the land becomes a part of her. Not even the tragic, senseless death of her son Joshua at kidnappers' hands, her alienation from her two daughters, or the dissolution of her once-devoted marriage can pull her from the ranch she's devoted her life to preserving.
But despite having survived the most terrible of tragedies, Claire is about to face her greatest struggle: an illness that threatens not only to rip her from her land but take her very life. And she's chosen a caregiver, the inscrutable, Caribbean-born Minna, who may just be the darkest force of all.
Haunting, tough, triumphant, and profound, The Forgetting Tree explores the intimate ties we have to one another, the deepest fears we keep to ourselves, and the calling of the land that ties every one of us together.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Daring... haunting... A remote citrus ranch can be a crossroads where cultures collide, and those collisions can be life-changing for everyone involved.” —Jane Smiley, New York Times Book Review

“The story here is complex and expansive, and Soli's prose is reminiscent of Eudora Welty's. Like that writer, Soli's sentences are tied to the land, and the effect is that as much as this is a story about people, it is also a story about place and the imprint that each makes on the other.” —The Daily Beast

“A lush, haunting novel for readers who appreciate ambiguity, this work should establish Soli as a novelist with depth and broad scope.” —Library Journal

“Soli has again created characters readers will love and care about. She does so with deceptively simple grace: Their yearnings breeze right into your life... The Forgetting Tree is a journey worth taking.” —Book Page

“A lush novel with two fascinating, complicated characters at its heart.” —Booklist

“Soli, who made a splash with her debut, The Lotus Eaters, will captivate readers again with this twisting, intriguing tale of a grieving California woman…With her knack for beautiful prose and striking detail, this is a solid follow-up to her debut.” —Publishers Weekly

“A haunting debut novel . . . quietly mesmerizing.” —Janet Maslin, The New York Times

“A devastatingly awesome novel. It's one of those books that I didn't want to put down.” —Nancy Pearl, NPR

“Splendid.” —Danielle Trussoni, The New York Times Book Review

“Soli writes with such passion, it is inescapable, lyrical, and profoundly moving. The Forgetting Tree goes on my top-ten list.” —Jonis Agee, author of The River Wife

“Tatjana Soli's elegant and sensuous prose will keep you spellbound.” —Maria Semple, author of This One Is Mine

“An incredible book, richly imagined and beautifully written.” —Nancy Zafris, series editor, The Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction

“Spare, lucid prose infuse this novel with a dramatic clarity.” —Tim O'Brien, author of The Things They Carried

“Beautiful and harrowing . . . [the] characters are unforgettable.” —Richard Russo, author of Empire Falls

“Tremendously evocative…A beautiful book.” —Janice Y. K. Lee, author of The Piano Teacher

The New York Times Book Review
In her ambitious and much admired 2010 novel The Lotus Eaters (which won the James Tait Black Prize, one of the most prestigious in Britain), Tatjana Soli explored the experiences of a female war photographer who spent nearly a dozen years in Vietnam, and connected her themes and subject matter not only to Alfred Tennyson but to the Odyssey. In her second novel, The Forgetting Tree, she is no less daring, and no less haunting. Soli refuses to do the easy thing—she demands of the reader both patience and trust.
—Jane Smiley
Publishers Weekly
Soli, who made a splash with her debut, The Lotus Eaters, will captivate readers again with this twisting, intriguing tale of a grieving California woman. Claire and her husband, Forster, live an idyllic life on a citrus farm in California with their three children until their 10-year-old son is murdered in a robbery. Fifteen years later, Claire and Forster have divorced, their eldest daughters are grown, and Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer. Alone on the ranch, she needs a helping hand, and along comes Minna, a mysterious young beauty. The two women forge a co-dependent bond, and Claire sinks deeper under Minna’s spell, even though she senses danger lurking beneath. Though the story is slow and befuddling at times, Soli successfully paints an intimate portrait of two vulnerable women trying to make sense of their separately tragic lives—and becoming eerily entwined for their efforts. With her knack for beautiful prose and striking detail, this is a solid follow-up to her debut. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber Associates. (Sept.)
Library Journal
When life hands you lemons...burn down the lemon tree. The author of the best seller The Lotus Eaters gives us a very different but equally compelling novel about finding what's worth fighting to preserve and the act of surviving in all its moral complexity. The main character, Claire, marries into a family that owns a citrus farm in southern California. When the loss of their son tears her and her husband apart, Claire fights to protect her two daughters from further loss. The bond Claire has formed with the land itself nourishes and sustains her through a fierce battle with cancer as external elements of her life are stripped away by her powerful and mysterious Caribbean-born caregiver, Minna. While the final part of the story seems somewhat rushed, the strength of the novel is in the vivid, complex characters. VERDICT A lush, haunting novel for readers who appreciate ambiguity, this work should establish Soli as a novelist with depth and broad scope. [See Prepub Alert, 3/19/12.]—Gwen Vredevoogd, Marymount Univ. Lib., Marshall, VA
Kirkus Reviews
The fate of a struggling Southern California citrus farm shifts after the arrival of a mysterious Haitian woman. The second novel by Soli (The Lotus Eaters, 2010) centers on Claire, the matriarch of an orchard that's been the source of plenty of financial and emotional heartbreak. Her young son was killed there, and the aftermath of his death drove a wedge between her and her husband and two daughters. Years later, when Claire is diagnosed with breast cancer, she begins to search for live-in help and is introduced to Minna, a young woman low on housekeeping experience but high on charm: She speaks enchantingly of her academic work and her great-grandmother, the novelist Jean Rhys. Minna soon brings touches of her homeland to Claire's house, building a shrine in her room and making herbal concoctions to bolster Claire's recovery, and the new assistant also pursues a relationship with a movie-star neighbor. But all is not well: Minna grows increasingly possessive and demanding of Claire, and a later section of the novel shows that Minna's background isn't quite what she's claimed it was. This book aspires to be a multilayered story about class and race distinctions--Soli explores Claire's white guilt and cultural confusion to better get at the source of emotional divisions. Though Soli cannily shows how each woman exploits the other, her noble goal is undercut somewhat by baggy, sometimes pedantic storytelling, particularly the wooden arguments between Claire, her daughters and her ex-husband. (Soli's affinity for sentence fragments amplifies the prose's stiff feel.) Minna's own section of the novel, which chronicles her travels from Haiti to Miami to California, features some of Soli's most engaging writing, though it owes a clear debt to the troubled Haitian heroines of the works of Edwidge Danticat. Ambitious but overripe.

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.78(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.10(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1



Claire did not believe in the evil of the world, and so when it touched her, at first she did not recognize it for what it was. No pointing red tails and pitchforks as in the movies, not even malice in the heart. Evil as simple as an accident, as boring as the aftermath it brings. Forster saying death would have been easier than enduring what followed. A small, domestic evil as random as lightning, as devastating to those touched by it.

*   *   *

She had longed for home—a place of connection and belonging and family—for so long it was hard to believe that her struggle to attain it was about to be consummated. Eighteen years since she first came to the ranch. Her only regret that Hanni, her mother-in-law, wasn’t there to share the moment she finally got it back for the family, because what was the worth of something unless it lasted through one’s desire for it, a whole lifetime if need be, or beyond it, into one’s children’s lives also? She couldn’t imagine anything better than Josh or one of the girls taking over when the time came. She looked around at all that was hers: the blush of sunset on her blossoming citrus trees; Forster, coming down the steps from the porch two at a time, wrapping his arms around her. Hers—his love—also.

“Hurry, the girls have a surprise for you. Pretend you don’t know.”

Forster was throwing a party, a Claire-will-live-forever party, since she hated birthdays and their reminder of time passing. Yes, about to have everything, but time itself had escaped her, moved on, made her a little more leathery, a little more tired than she wanted to be. At last she had time to spend with the children, just as they were growing up and going away.

Everyone had been invited, everyone came, barbecue for over two hundred, pushing at the seams of the farmhouse, spilling over onto the lawn, eddying around the rose gardens, the shadowy edges of the stalwart orchards. Her mother and father had driven down from Santa Monica—witnesses to her hard-won good fortune. She took a long look around as if she were about to depart on a journey and would need this memory: the citrus fruit hanging heavy with juice; the leaves on the trees turned ever so slightly toward the last rays of sunshine, showing their faintly silvered backsides.

*   *   *

In the kitchen, the caterer was scolding a newly hired waiter who’d come in late and ungroomed. In her room, Gwen, sixteen, put on lipstick and mascara for the first time. The guests walked along admiring the healthy rows of trees, the food-laden tables, as Lucy led the younger children in a game of hide-and-seek. People ate as much as they could bear and drank more. Unnoticed, Joshua snuck out from the bar with a bottle of vodka hidden away in a newspaper. Everyone was giddy with the rare sense of work put aside in favor of pleasure.

*   *   *

As Claire stood admiring the paper lanterns strung across the lawn, her lawn, rocking in the faint breeze, the banker Relicer sidled up to her with a plate stacked high with ribs. Even under the magic golden pink of sunset, time had not been kind during the last ten years she had been in business with him. He looked as severe and expiring as in his mahogany-lined office—aged, pale skin and caved-in cheeks that spoke of a life of frugality.

“It’s a beauty,” he said. “What you’ve accomplished with our money.”

“Money didn’t accomplish this,” Claire said, feeling smug with the last check to him in her pocket. She would put it in the mail after he left. “It just kept developers away long enough for it to provide.” Impossible to explain that the land was alive and fertile. It just needed coaxing along.

Relicer gnawed at the rib beyond simply getting the meat off, intending to suck the very marrow out. A tardy waiter came by and in offering a napkin almost flipped the paper plate on the banker’s shirt. Claire frowned, noticed the waiter’s greasy blond hair, his unkempt nails. She would complain to the caterer. The young man apologized, but the expression on his face, small eyes and large nose crowded together, wasn’t the least sorry.

“The money wasn’t exactly a gift.” Claire looked down at her feet. The moment of sweetest revenge. They would no longer be needing his services; the trees were bowing under the weight of their record harvest; prices were up and the loan would be paid off and the Baumsarg ranch would never be beholden again. A happy birthday indeed. Forster had been right that the place never felt as much theirs since the debt, but Claire knew that sometimes necessity made one temporarily do the wrong thing.

The most devastating revenge: the thin envelope with its single stamp, a check for the full amount, and a simple note requesting the closing of the credit line. Gwen made her way over to the rescue. “Come on, Mom. Cake time.”

Claire looked back at Relicer, happy to be abandoning him. “It’s a hard job living here, not a vacation.”

As she walked with her daughter, she noticed the girl’s first attempt at makeup. “I wish you’d wash that off. It makes you look too old.” When Gwen frowned, Claire relented, putting her arms around her shoulders. “And too beautiful. What happened to my little girl?”

A mountainous tower of frosting masquerading as a cake was wheeled out on a cart, and by it stood Lucy and Gwen, unhappy that Josh was as usual nowhere in sight to sing his part. Raisi, Claire’s mother, offered to go looking for him, but Octavio took charge. The girls sang “How Sweet It Is” in harmony, one part missing, and it sounded strangely romantic and dreamy coming from their mouths instead of the usual James Taylor version that Forster loved to play. Did the girls mistakenly think that Forster’s favorite song was hers also? The girls didn’t know differently because Claire had no time to listen to music, much less have favorites, so on Saturday nights, exhausted from a long day doing errands that had been put off during the week, she deferred to Forster’s taste.

“Where’s Josh for the picture?” Claire asked. He had hit a new stage of rebelliousness that was unfathomable after the docile joys of raising daughters.

After a half hour’s search, Octavio found him drinking vodka with older boys in an irrigation ditch.

“There are going to be consequences to this,” Claire said when she found out. “This is not acceptable. Those are teenagers. Not ten-year-olds.”

Josh looked at Octavio, betrayed. “But they said—”

“You missed cutting my cake. Singing the song your sisters prepared. You weren’t in the family picture. Things are going to change.”

A charmer, Josh held out an orange as a peace offering. It used to be a joke between them when he got in trouble. The most precious thing for the family and the most common.

“Not going to get you off the hook this time, mister.”

“We can always take another picture.” Forster held the camera, not paying mind to his son’s ruffled hair, his crooked smile, his fingers making rabbit ears behind Lucy’s head, and at the time Claire was angry that the pictures were too silly to use for the Christmas card. “Behave!” she said. Forster was distracted after overhearing Claire’s conversation with the banker, a double impotence—the farm’s loan and this man’s presence lording the fact over them. Forster remained sullen until she reminded him that this would be the last time they would have to entertain the man. “You can give him the check yourself.”

Claire handed him the envelope, then gave him a thumbs-up. “We need you in the picture—”

“Let me take it,” Raisi said, stepping out of the line.

“You have to stand by Dad,” Claire said.

“Allow me.” Relicer had appeared from nowhere and offered to take the family snapshot. A bad omen. Forster reluctantly handed over the camera. But the old man fumbled with the buttons until the dirty-haired waiter reappeared. He put his hand on the banker’s shoulder. “I’ll take over, Pops.”

Claire again noticed the dirty fingernails, and Raisi noticed, too, her eyes clouding. Octavio started toward the waiter, sensing the women’s discomfort, but Sofia called him. “Go,” Claire said. She would handle this herself. The caterer would get an earful soon. Forster escorted Relicer to the car, handed him the envelope, and watched him drive away.

*   *   *

The night after her birthday party, Forster was late coming home from a machinery exposition out in Pomona. Her parents had left that morning to return home. A night of hot moonlight and citrus perfuming the air. Claire had worked late in the fields with Octavio. Listless from the heat, the kids begged to eat a dinner of party leftovers out on a blanket on the lawn.

After the meal, they played cards while she went to the barn to recover a wrap she had left from dancing the night before. Late into the night, Forster and she had danced in celebration of ending the Relicer part of their life. The caterer had bawled a waiter out, demanding to look in his bag before he left. When the silver globe was found in it, she came to the barn to inform them she was calling the police. Never seeing the man in question, Claire had stopped her, telling her to escort the man off their property with a warning not to show up again. A blemish on an otherwise perfect night. They kept dancing. Now ribbon and confetti lodged in the gravel like stars, flashed through the grass like comets, turning the world topsy-turvy.

*   *   *

From the dark surrounding groves, three men appeared, as if they had metamorphosed from the very trees—two Hispanics and one masked by a baseball cap and a bandana from the eyes down. They mumbled about looking for work while the bandanaed one squinted through the darkness at the house, farther up the drive.

Impossible that a house brimming with hundreds of people the day before could be empty and helpless tonight.

“My foreman, Octavio, is here. He will take care of you.”

But the bandana man seemed hostile to what he sensed was a lie. One of the Hispanic men, wearing a dirty, reeking T-shirt, had a stagger that she thought was a deformity until she noticed the same heaviness in the stride of the other. Drunk. She pictured the loaded rifle safely on the top shelf of the closet in the entry hallway. How perfectly, uselessly far away it was. Even if she reached it, the child-lock would take extra precious seconds to unfasten.

Out of the corner of her eye, Claire saw Gwen walking down the drive looking for her. A cold sweat formed under her arms at the sparkle of a moonlit blade in the hand of the bandana man. She bluffed, “Octavio, where are you?” until he hushed her with a shave of metal. They must smell fear on her like dogs.

“He’s gone home,” Gwen yelled back.

The bandana one touched her arm with the cold flat of the blade as he stood partially behind her. His breath was hot and sour; she could smell his unwashed skin as Gwen came up to the group.

“Qué linda. Bonito pelo,” said the staggering one as he reached to touch Gwen’s hair. Quickly she stepped back, eyes widening as she registered that none of these were their usual workers. Far away, Lucy could be heard arguing with Joshua. Claire saw it, too, for the first time, her daughter’s new curves, now a young woman rather than an awkward teenager, and it put a vise on her heart.

“Go back to the house, Gwen.”

“No!” the bandana one said. “Keep her.” He signaled to the other, who locked his arms around Gwen’s narrow shoulders in a bear hug. When she struggled in a spasm of panic, he shook her like a rag until her body went quiet. He held her with one arm and punched her on the side of the head with his other hand. She yelped in pain.

“Let her go back.” Claire put herself between the men and her daughter, her body forming a protective shield.

Raspy laughter from the other two, and the bandana one nodded. “Let’s all go see what’s in the house.”

Her thoughts stopped, sputtered, jumped, grabbing. “Money,” she said, the suggestion of what they might otherwise do intolerable.

“Let’s go.”

“Not here. It’s at the bank. Tomorrow.”

The bandana one laughed, and she knew this was what got him off, the humiliation. He clapped his hands, an understanding between them. “We’ll need a hostage. Otherwise you’ll tell the cops.”

“Touch her and the deal’s off.”

“How do you figure you’re calling the shots?” He stopped, contemplating. “Okay, let the girl go. Keep quiet, cutie, or Mama isn’t coming back.”

A car motor broke the silence, headlights sweeping the trees just short of them as a pickup went up the drive to the house. Octavio returned or Forster come back early? The men ran, pulling Claire with them to the deepest part of the black-bitter orchard. Afraid for herself, more afraid for her children, she let out a cry. A mistake. They shoved her on the ground, a boot kicked her side. “Shut up!” They would kill her. Kill them. Mouth gagged with thick fingers and dirty cloth.

“How does the rich puta feel now? Want to order me around now?” he said, as a fist crushed bone.

Rage, hatred, welled through muscles that should have had the strength of new steel. Unacceptable to her that she could be pinned down so easily, that she could not fight back. That she had ignored Forster’s warnings of keeping a gun close by. Like a dog, she bit an ear and was punched. Kneed a groin and was cut. Would gladly have died fighting back, except the maternal kept her from sacrificing herself.

A small voice, not Forster’s, not Octavio’s, broke through. The worst pain yet—Josh had somehow found them. “Mom?”

She screamed and grabbed hair. A hard knock to her head. As she lost consciousness, she heard a scurrying and then one of the men winded, butted in the stomach. “Grab the little fuck!”

*   *   *

Recalling those next hours, so frightening, consciousness intermittent, all thought evaporated. She was on the same plane of existence as an animal being led to the stockyard, pure physical dread, and afterward, months later, she understood her mother’s terror escaping across the border, how for so many years she was unable to talk of it. Terror was intimate, entwined in the moment, not translatable.

Afterward, her mouth filled with salt from blood and sweet from blood. Seeded in the dirt, her fingers plowed earth she loved but was now separated from. Divorced, dismissed, expelled from. Was this the feeling of being thrown out of that first, perfect garden? Her farm, her trees, and yet she had been rendered helpless. She woke from unconsciousness to the comfort of a warm rain that turned out to be piss. All bets off because she had fought, and they had gorged on their power over her. She would never forget the spiked hatred in their laughter. Their carelessness. Their lack of fear in repercussion. She lay on the ground, unable to move. Broken arm, torn life. Later (how long? time untethered), alone, she melted into the ground, a superficial burial. Until she remembered Josh.


Copyright © 2012 by Tatjana Soli

Meet the Author

TATJANA SOLI lives with her husband in Southern California. Her New York Times bestselling debut novel, The Lotus Eaters, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, a New York Times Notable Book, and won the 2011 James Tait Black Prize.

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The Forgetting Tree: A Novel 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
First of all why would an 11 year old even have this book? Second, people actually read the reviews to try and get a feel for books before purchasing them. Unless you have actually read the book why even bother posting about it. The title said rate and review. Stick with books and sites more age appropriate. Your 1 star will now keep the rating on this book unfair. Can Nook not do something about kids doing this?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Well written. Enjoyable read.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Life in those orange groves everyone in S. CA sees but can never can taste.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago