The first thing I noticed about this book is that the author did not use quotations to set off dialog. It made it feel to me as if the novel was silent, underwater, like watching a movie with the sound off. There is dialog, but it’s not in quotes, so my mind’s voice doesn’t say it out loud, just recognizes it as what was said. At first it annoyed me, but as the novel went along, it made me feel as though I were living among people who almost never spoke. By the time I was ensconced in the story, I felt like I were living with them, an almost animal existence, living without talking, just doing and working and moving to survive.
The novel is very much one of location. The orchards are almost one of the characters in the novel. Talmadge, the protagonist, spends a lot of time caring for his trees. The constant mention of apples and apricots made me feel the beauty of the place even when the events turned tragic. There’s a great scene where Talmadge takes a train from another town and marvels that he could be home in the morning and so far away in the evening. I’ve felt like that too sometimes.
The story is a tragedy. When Talmadge’s father dies, his mother takes her two young children out to the middle of Oregon, where they live alone. His mother dies and his sister disappears, a grief that haunts him the rest of his days. He seems to be haunted by loneliness. Even when he has Angeline, he’s still mostly alone, worried and pining for the ones who left instead of hewing to the connections he still has. It never seems to occur to any of the characters that they could date or get married or do anything else to cure rather than merely to live with their loneliness and sorrow. Michaelson’s crimes are like a bad seed that spreads to infect people he’s never even met. His ill treatment of the girls lead to Jane’s tragedy and Della’s grief which leads to Talmadge’s grief which damages Angeline and even Clee and Caroline.
What I liked about the story was how the characters developed layer on layer until they felt real. What I didn’t like was watching them destroy themselves through their character flaws. This is the kind of book you read when you want to read something different, to experience a different life. It was well-written, but I can’t say it was a lot of fun.