This book had been at the bottom of my to-read list for a long, long time—basically since I started keeping a formal list instead of just eyeballing my shelves and picking something at random every time I needed a new book. While I really like the organization factor of having a ready list of books that sound good, I don't love the strange phenomenon that causes titles that have been on the list for a while to lose their luster. The longer they languish there at the bottom, suffocating under the increasing weight of the shinier books I've heard about more recently, the less appeal they hold for me. I scroll right on past them, thinking, “No, not that one, it can't be that good or I'd have read it by now!”
Of course there's no logic to that kind of thinking. I'm glad I finally gave The Orchardist priority status because it's a great book. The fact that I first heard about it two years ago did nothing to diminish its quality. Obviously. Because that's not actually a thing outside of my crazy head.
In Coplin's debut novel, a man named Talmadge lives alone, tending his apple orchard in a secluded corner of the Pacific Northwest. After his father died in a silver mine, Talmadge and his mother and sister traveled on foot until they reached this idyllic valley. Now his mother and sister are gone, and Talmadge lives quietly, pruning the trees and selling his fruit at a stand in a nearby town.
One day, two girls who have been lurking around town steal some of Talmadge's fruit from his baskets. When they turn up again in his orchard, he finds himself leaving food out for them instead of chasing them off. Maybe it's because he still misses his sister, whom he hasn't seen for years. Maybe it's because the girls seem wild, desperate and alone. Maybe it's because they're both visibly pregnant, and even though he doesn't allow his thoughts to dwell on it, Talmadge knows it's evidence that they've suffered wrongs he can't fathom.
This isn't a clear-cut savior story, in which Talmadge opens his home and heart to the girls and they become a happy little family. No matter how generous or willing Talmadge might be, some damage can't be undone. Some people can't be saved. Sometimes all you can do is watch and pray as they try to save themselves, in their own halting, broken way.
Coplin's style reminded me a little of Cormac McCarthy's. As you might know, I've been campaigning for years to land a job as McCarthy's housekeeper/scullery maid/coffee fetcher, so that's high praise. Talmadge, a man of intense solitude encasing a broken, grasping heart, seemed like the kind of character McCarthy would write.
The Orchardist doesn't deserve to be at the bottom of anyone's list.