Botany and Desire

At the Edge of the Orchard, by Tracy Chevalier, (Viking), 304 pages, release date 15 March, 2016

There’s no such thing as a bad Tracy Chevalier novel. There are brilliant Tracy Chevalier novels and rather good Tracy Chevalier novels, but that’s about the extent of the range. In other words, when a new Tracy Chevalier comes out, I know I’m in for some enjoyable reading. At the Edge of the Orchard falls in the middle of her range, not brilliant, but better than rather good.

This novel follows two historical threads: one of a violently divided family of homesteaders in Ohio, the other of the experiences of one son from that family as he moves west, arriving in California shortly after the start of the gold rush. The first thread is narrated in the alternating voices of husband and wife. The second is narrated in third person. In an odd way, this variety means that the second thread, which should be the most engaging, feels as if it’s holding readers at a distance.

Reading this novel can be an uncomfortable experience, but it presents an insightful view of the compromises we make when living with and building family—the times when not bad is good enough, even if it’s not ideal. The historical background of this novel is the growing English passion for Californian plants during the mid-19th Century, which adds to its interest.

You can trust that At the Edge of the Orchard will provide a worthwhile read, if not a life-changing one.

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