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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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