Tracy Chevalier's latest spans 15 years, 2000km and several American states.
It's the 1830s. Deep in Ohio's Black Swamp Country, James and Sadie Goodenough are starting an apple orchard. They have to - their wagon's broken down - but they squabble and split over varieties. He wants sweet; she wants sour. Their preferences echo their personalities.
The pair is a study in polarities. James is stoic, stolid and intermittently smug; Sadie is a splendid, savage shrew whose favourite apples are appropriately called "spitters". One of the novel's achievements is to make you shake and nod your head at them both.
Jump - lurch, rather - a decade-plus forward when son Robert has left his dysfunctional home as per his mother's final orders. Via semi-successful spells in gold mining, ranching and stables, he's come to California where the tall trees offer solace. Yes, Chevalier does write like that occasionally.
Events are narrated in a mixture of authentic voices and irritatingly-spelled letters. It's an orthodox, effective technique that keeps the plot pacing along. There's a lot of information about sequoia seeds, golden pippin grafting (don't miss the ammonia
application technique) and land leases. Historical figures such as manic botanist William Lobb and John Chapman, the canoe-paddling, sapling-selling model for legendary Johnny Appleseed, make appearances.
Chevalier is an exuberant story-teller, eager for you to share her discoveries and excitements. Trees and their fruits are insistently beautiful, and characters are quickened by these beauties in various ways. The prose streams past, confident, capable, sometimes prolix and, just occasionally, pancake-flat.
After the sustained squalor of the Black Swamp sections - "stagnant water, stench of
rot and mould, thick black mud that even scrubbing couldn't get out of skin and clothes" - later scenes sometimes feel a touch meagre. But things surge towards a redemptive ending where Robert's excellent, anarchic lover, Molly, kicks life into a new direction and you can almost hear the singing strings.
Spirited and stagey; easy and engaging: you'll learn a little and enjoy quite a lot.
AT THE EDGE OF THE ORCHARD (HarperCollins $34.99)
By Tracy Chevalier