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REVIEW: The Orchard by Theresa Weir

Dear Ms. Weir:

A while back you posted on Twitter a couple of drawings that your late husband had done, explaining that while he was an accomplished artist, he never felt comfortable thinking of himself that way or having his art made public. At the time I thought it was sad that someone who so obviously had the talent his drawings exhibited never thought of himself as an artist. Now, after reading your memoir, The Orchard, I feel that I have a deeper understanding of why that would be, and an even deeper sadness about all the reasons that it would, could, never be any different. But I also came away from The Orchard with a deep respect for your storytelling skill and the austere beauty of your prose. Even the harshest, ugliest moments of The Orchard are rendered carefully, gently, even lovingly, not in a way that softens their blow, but rather in a style that deepens their impact and significance.
The Orchard	Theresa WeirSo here’s the thing about apples: perfection on the outside can hide a multitude of ugliness on the inside. Worms and disease. Bruises that don’t show up until at least an hour after the fruit is handled with anything but the lightest touch. And producing the perfect apple requires incredible vigilance, sacrifice, gallons upon gallons of pesticides, and ideal weather conditions. And still the apple can be rotten on the inside. This irony permeates the narrative of The Orchard, starting on the first pages when the 8-year old narrator (referred to as Theresa only once throughout the entire course of the book*) is offered a mushroom by the neighbor:

 

“Have one, Theresa. I’m sure your mother won’t mind.”

She smelled like soap and clothes that had just been ironed. She wore pink lipstick, yellow beachcombers, and white sandals. She was so unlike the moody women in my family.

I ate a mushroom.

Later my mother and aunt put their dark heads together and whispered their concerns about the food.

They could be poisonous.

Oh, yes, they look poisonous. . . .

I didn’t tell anyone that my life was over. Instead I went to my room, lay down on the bed, and waited to die.

 

The mushroom was not poisonous, but that did not stop Theresa from experiencing all manner of ills, often from the very people in her life who should have been nurturing and protecting her. From her thoughtless father, who simply announced to her one day that he was leaving and would not be back, to her moody, self-centered mother, who brought man after man into her life, yearning for a happiness she could never create within herself, Theresa was too often a casualty of other people’s decisions and desires, never cherished as the center of someone else’s world. Even some of the people who loved her the most ended up failing her in one way or another.

It is therefore no surprise to the reader when she impulsively marries Adrian Curtis, the son of a prominent Illinois apple farmer, local royalty in 1970’s Henderson County, a handsome young man who picked up Theresa in her uncle’s bar and carried her to his family’s orchards, a few miles away from where she lived but forever away from where Theresa had ever imagined her life going. The vagabond child of a mother who didn’t want her and the niece of an uncle who couldn’t offer her much beyond his own affection for her suddenly became the 21 year old wife of a 23 year old apple farmer without even knowing what marriage would entail, let alone life on a farm with in-laws who despised her for her lack of pedigree and a young husband who could never articulate why he had wanted so badly to marry her, let alone ever tell her he loved her.

And yet the marriage and the family Theresa and Adrian built over the next 18 years became the very substance of Theresa’s life and of the story of The Orchard, with all of the bittersweet moments strung together in a narrative of incredible emotional resonance. Of her uncle, Theresa remarks with approval that unlike the women in her family, “he wore his cloak of despair in silence.” Adrian is the same way. No matter how long she spent with him, she “still felt he harbored a secret self none of us would ever know. In the middle of the night, I would wake up and lie very still, and I would feel his sadness in the bed beside me.” His incredibly controlling and cold mother (she tied toddler Adrian’s left arm to his side until he learned to be right handed) had almost inhuman expectations for her son, who toiled on the family farm like any hired laborer, until one day he would inherit the farm and virtually nothing would change. Except that Theresa was soon pregnant, and her son would be expected to follow in his father and grandfather and great grandfather’s footsteps.

Although The Orchard is Theresa Weir’s memoir, Adrian quickly becomes its central figure, in part because he and their children were the most important people in her life, in part because of how she struggled to understand her enigmatic husband, in part because of Theresa’s conditioned instinct to remain unobtrusive, and in part because Adrian’s life provides such a powerful vehicle through which Weir can investigate the intertwined themes of beauty, artistry, fragility, and devastating loss. Adrian could never tell her he loved her, but he bought her a horse after her beloved grandmother died, and Theresa recognizes this as his way of acknowledging her grief and trying to soothe her loss. He is a devoted father who will not let his children participate in the toxic rituals of apple growing, even as he puts himself in harm’s way every single day to meet the demands of the fruit’s elusive perfection and his own mother’s ever-looming rejection. In fact, Adrian’s devotion to his disdainful parents is so complete that early in his marriage he even eats suppers at their house, leaving Theresa alone for all but the late night hours, when they didn’t even speak to one another in the darkness of their tiny, musty cottage on the orchard property. Later in their marriage, when Theresa proposes they move away from the orchard, Adrian brings her to his parents so she can understand why such a thing would be impossible:

Adrian’s father made eye contact with me, and I almost recoiled at the iciness I saw there. Then he turned to his son: “If you move, don’t bother ever coming around here again. You won’t be welcome.”

And yet this man, who learned to draw right-handed because his mother had tied down his left hand when he was only three years old, is passionate in his own way. He draws beautiful pictures he won’t show anyone. He draws the things of his life, the “weeds,” as Theresa points out, the things that plague him like the codling moth that could destroy a harvest of apples like nothing else. He appreciates the beauty of the orchard and strives to develop his own type of apple, the Sweet Melinda, which “would have given Adrian a voice, given his ideas weight and validation.” In short, “[t]hey would prove his worth in a place where worth shouldn’t have to be proven.” And as Theresa shares in Adrian’s excited anticipation, she “understood the reward for seeking perfection.” Unfortunately, falling short of perfection could be a devastating drop.

What ultimately happens to the Sweet Melindas is, like so much else that happens to Theresa, an omen of things to come. Perfection on the outside, whether in the beauty of her husband or an apple, or even an apple farm, could hide all sorts of ugliness on the inside, and while you worked and sacrificed to keep that patina of perfection intact, worms or cancer or past fears and disappointments could be eating away at the soft, fleshy inside.

At one point Theresa notes that “[m]odern farmers were artists, destructive architects of the land.” As sublime as the aroma of the apple blossoms was, it could never eclipse the garlicky odor of the pesticides that was always in the air. Every beautiful site, every beautiful moment held the possibility of its opposite and the probability that something bad was the price to be paid for that beauty. And as she narrates her tale, Theresa returns again and again to the dualities of this world of which she was such an integral part but to which she never fully felt she belonged, observer and participant, her story unfolding like testimony, a confession of how helpless she often felt in the face of her fears and a chronicle of how stubbornly she survived, and in many ways, thrived in the beautiful but treacherous world of mortally engineered natural perfection. Like the apples, yet not quite the same. Similar in the way an apple so easily bears the scar of an overenthusiastic or aggressive grip, just like the human heart. Different in that where an infected orchard has to be plowed and burned, human beings continue on, given more opportunities to suffer or thrive.

Although we tend to read memoirs as “true,” I read The Orchard as a captivating, suspenseful, dramatically compelling story, and whether its details are strictly accurate is of no concern to me. The narrative consistently reflects a profound respect for art and beauty, as well as an appreciation for small blessings and the very human struggle for survival and happiness. And the interesting juxtaposition of Theresa’s strong-voiced narration and her apparent desire to be inconspicuous (the single use of her name, for example) raises fascinating questions about subject v. subjectivity, presence v. being present, identity v. identification, etc.

Ultimately, though, there is an emotional truth in Weir’s writing that is characteristic of the best fiction, and all of the characters in this narrative are vivid and “real” at a visceral level. I cried through most of the second half of the book and highlighted more passages than I could ever recount in a review, struck again and again by the straightforward artistry of the text, the depth of its metaphors, the complexity of its themes, and the absolute stark beauty of its truths. That Weir also writes Romance and Romantic Suspense is both astonishing and completely understandable if the events of this book are anywhere near the truth of her life, and while Theresa’s writing is a part of The Orchard, it is not, by any stretch, the focal point or even a main point of the narrative. Indeed, I hope this book reaches far and wide in terms of readership, because it’s so powerfully crafted and so satisfyingly cathartic. There is a great deal of sadness here, but it’s rendered with such care and such sensitivity that it becomes beautiful in its own way, sublime in the reader’s experience of every mundane and profound tragedy. And, for me, a perfect A read.

~ Janet

* note: when I refer to “Theresa,” I am referring to the narrator of the book, and when I reference Weir or Theresa Weir, I’m referencing the author of the book, which I see as distinct from, although related to, the narrator.

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isn't sure if she's an average Romance reader, or even an average reader, but a reader she is, enjoying everything from literary fiction to philosophy to history to poetry. Historical Romance was her first love within the genre, but she's fickle and easily seduced by the promise of a good read. She approaches every book with the same hope: that she will be filled from the inside out with something awesome that she didnʼt know, didnʼt think about, or didnʼt feel until that moment. And she's always looking for the next mind-blowing read, so feel free to share any suggestions!

19 Comments

  1. Shayera
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 14:23:31

    I read this in arc form soon after BEA. I found it as moving as you did. What an amazing life she’s led.

  2. Kristie(J)
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 14:46:11

    What a beautiful review. I only recently heard about this book but when I did I knew I would be reading it as I love her writing. Your review here only reinforces that. It sounds like a book that I will really be able to relate to as I also lost way too soon a very complicated man with demons I tried to understand for most of our marriage.

  3. Maili
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 15:29:40

    A truly lovely review. I’m pleased that it receives a great grade from you, too. Annoying, though, because it’s making a serious dent to my will not* to buy a copy.

    (I avoid all things agricultural. I even can’t bring myself to watch any film that revolves around, or sets on, a farm. It can be such a hard life, and I don’t like being reminded of that.)

    Aw, it’s a Weir. I think I’ll buy a copy after all. Gah.

  4. Lilian Darcy
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 17:42:46

    Janet, it sounds like an amazing book, and is going on my wish list. Thanks for a really informative and enticing review.

  5. Statch
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 18:50:26

    That was an amazing review. I don’t think I can read this book..just the review makes me too sad…but I am definitely going to look for her other books.

  6. Janine
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 18:58:48

    What a beautiful review. I don’t know if I have the courage to read this book, but you made me really want to.

  7. Robin/Janet
    Sep 21, 2011 @ 20:25:25

    @Shayera: Anyone who thinks Romance authors live fluffy, idyllic lives needs to read this book, that’s for sure.

    @Kristie(J): I definitely think you will find it moving, but I highly recommend a lot of kleenex nearby; I am not a crier and I wept a lot during the last part of the book.

    @Maili: After I wrote my review I hunted around to see what others were saying, and I found an interview with Weir about the book, in which she likened it to a dark fairy tale (naive young woman, handsome prince, evil mother figure, poisoned apple). I didn’t see the comparison while I was reading or writing my review, but now it makes perfect sense. So maybe you could read it that way? ;D If I can find the link to the interview (or if anyone else knows it), I’ll post it here.

    @Lilian Darcy: I hope you enjoy it!

    @Statch: As sad as much of the book was, it was written with so much grace and so much appreciation for what was beautiful in her life that I was saddened by some of what happens in the book but not sad when I finished it.

    @Janine: I don’t know what to tell you, Janine, beyond what I said to Statch. Some of it is tough reading, but it’s just so beautifully rendered that the sadness became something else for me, something really cathartic. It may not be the same for you, though. Maybe you want to try a Kindle sample to see?

  8. orannia
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 01:29:02

    Beautiful review – thank you :) I’m not sure if I have the courage to read it though. I could probably get through all the sadness if I knew the ending was happy…or is asking that a spoiler?

  9. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 04:17:01

    @Robin/Janet: In the “reading group guide” it says “The Orchard reads a little like a dark fairy tale. What are some similarities between The Orchard and a fairy tale?”

    The guide includes a spoiler and ends with an interview with Weir.

  10. Laura Vivanco
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 04:23:21

    @orannia: The review at Publishers Weekly includes some details about the ending which I think answer your question.

  11. Keishon
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 08:48:22

    This was a compelling review.

  12. Robin/Janet
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:46:52

    @orannia: It does have a happy ending, of sorts, or at least an optimistic, happier ending. Not a Romance novel ending, though.

    @Laura Vivanco: I wish I could find the video review of Weir in which she talks about the dark fairy tale stuff. I’ll look again. Thanks for the FB page link; I hadn’t seen that.

    That PW review also includes a major spoiler. I know it’s weird to talk about nonfiction in terms of spoilers, but I definitely avoided talking about the climax of the book in specific terms, considering it a spoiler of sorts.

    I see some people are comparing The Orchard to Silent Spring, but I see them as very different books. While it’s true that I will probably never feel comfortable eating a non-organic apple again, I found the personal story the most compelling part of the book. Which is not to say that the environment issues were unimportant – just that they’re not what made the book unputdownable and so moving for me.

    @Keishon: Hi, Keishon! Still miss you on Twitter. ;D

  13. Robin/Janet
    Sep 22, 2011 @ 13:50:01

  14. Laura
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 14:16:27

    @Robin/Janet: This is such a lovely review. I’d planned to read this memoir, but I’ll probably get to it sooner because of your thoughts on it.

    By the way, I think the first line of your review makes the spoiler in the PW review obvious.

  15. Robin/Janet
    Sep 23, 2011 @ 14:27:24

    @Laura: Interestingly enough (or perhaps as a reflection of my own denseness), it wasn’t for me. That is, I had knowledge of the first thing long before I read the book and still felt incredible suspense and impact by “the spoiler” while reading the book (and it’s foreshadowed quite heavily, actually).

  16. orannia
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 18:45:23

    Thank you Laura and Robin/Janet. Hmmm. I would like to read it, but I might save it for the right time (if that makes sense :)

  17. Statch
    Sep 25, 2011 @ 18:54:46

    Just wanted to say that I did buy and read Bad Karma (by this author), and it was just as good as I’d expected it to be after reading this review of her memoir. Nuanced, beautifully written, funny, with odd characters. I would like to read more of her fiction, but her other romance/romantic suspense novels don’t seem to have made it to ebooks yet. She also writes straight mysteries as Anne Frasier, and those are available.

  18. Carolyn Jewel
    Sep 29, 2011 @ 20:27:43

    I just finished this book and it’s an amazing read. Read it.

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