Putting Down Roots: Book Review of At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

A Christmas present – in hardback, no less. The first of my Christmas books to be devoured.

About the Author

Tracy Chevalier 
Abridged from her site:
Tracy Chevalier was born in October 1962 and grew up in Washington, DC, moving to England after graduating with a BA in English from Oberlin College (Ohio). For several years she worked as a reference book editor while writing short stories in her spare time. In 1993 she resigned to do an MA in Creative Writing from the University of East Anglia (Norwich, England). Afterwards, she juggled freelance editing with writing until eventually, she was able to write full-time.

She lives in London with her English husband and son. She has written 8 novels, including The Last Runaway and Remarkable Creatures, and edited 2 short story collections. Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she’s curated three shows in art galleries/museums.

Her second novel, Girl with a Pearl Earring, sold 5 million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Colin Firth and Scarlett Johansson. Apart from writing, she’s curated three shows in art galleries/museums.

She writes novels longhand, typing what she’s written into the computer at the end of each day. She prefers blue ink, and uses disposable fountain pens. She has a desk in her study but usually, she writes on the living room sofa.

About the Book

From the author’s website:

James and Sadie Goodenough have settled where their wagon got stuck – in the muddy, stagnant swamps of 1830s Ohio. They and their children work relentlessly to tame their patch of land, buying saplings from a local tree man known as John Appleseed so they can cultivate the fifty apple trees required to stake their claim on the property. But the orchard they plant sows the seeds of a long battle. James loves the apples, reminders of an easier life back in Connecticut; while Sadie prefers the applejack they make, an alcoholic refuge from brutal frontier life.

Fifteen years later, the youngest Goodenough, Robert, is wandering through Gold Rush California. Restless and haunted by the broken family he left behind, he has made his way alone across the country.

In the redwood and giant sequoia groves, he finds some solace, collecting seeds for a naturalist who sells plants from the New World to the gardeners of England. But you can run only so far, even in America, and when Robert’s past makes an unexpected appearance he must decide whether to strike out again or stake his own claim to a home at last.

What I liked:

This is a beautiful story; as usual, Tracy Chevalier’s impeccable research makes the time, the place and the events totally believable and fully immersive. I always revel in her wonderful use of language, but I particularly liked her use of different diction and word choice to separate James and Sophie’s characters and narratives, and it’s just part of what makes the characters so well realised and believable.

Although the story is in a historical timeframe, we recognise those characters as people we could encounter today. The optimism of James and his constant striving to make life and his orchard in the Swamp successful; the bitterness and pessimism of Sadie, who is the creator of most of her troubles but blames everyone else but herself for them; and Robert’s restless search for a life that’s right for him – somewhere to put down roots.

And yes, putting down roots is just part of the apple and tree metaphor that Tracy so cleverly weaves through this novel. She doesn’t hit us over the head with it, yet the parallels are obvious. Saplings sail back to England from the US, carefully packaged by William Lobb; not all survive the journey and not all go on to thrive in a different climate and soil, but some do, echoing the pioneering adventures of both this period of US history and the personal story of the Goodenoughs. The story also suggests, very subtly, that perhaps putting down roots is not always to do with where we are but who we are with, and that sometimes the grafting of one thing onto another can make something special – and greater than the sum of its part.

There’s also the added delight, as with all of her novels, of effortlessly acquiring fascinating insights into the lives of people in the past and gaining knowledge about a host of new topics. For instance, before reading At the Edge of the Orchard I’d never heard of Calaveras Grove, where giant sequoias were first identified – and had barely heard of Johnny Appleseed before either.

Two days after I finished reading this novel, Calaveras Grove was on the news because its famous Pioneer Cabin tree had come down in a storm on the 8th of January, and I also began reading Alice Hoffman’s Nightbird – which has many references to a family orchard growing Pink apples, started by seeds acquired from Johnny Appleseed. I can feel my brain grow a little whenever I read a Chevalier book, and that’s a feeling I love. It’s what puts her among my top five authors.

What I Didn’t Like

Nothing. My only criticism would be that compared to her other novels, there were fewer dramatic moments; rather than tell Robert’s sister’s story in letters, later on, I would have been inclined to mirror the joint narration of James and Sadie at the beginning and interweave Robert’s sister’s narrative with his in close third person would have added more tension. Catching up in retrospect, with her suffering and adventures glossed over and reduced to veiled brief references, means the middle of the book is not as tense and pacey as it could be.


Sharing my Birthday Book Blurbs: Part 2

So here we are, on the second post about the Books Wot I Got For My Birthday. Here are the four books I got from my lovely husband…

birthday books 2


The Humans by Matt Haig

What appealed: I sometimes wander on to Matt Haig’s blog and often catch his articles here and there. As a writer I shouldn’t use clichés, so I daren’t say I like his ‘refreshing honesty’ (but I do). The premise of The Humans interested me and writers I like liked it, which seemed a fair recommendation:
“Excellent . . . very human and touching indeed” (Patrick Ness)
The Humans is tremendous; a kind of Curious Incident meets The Man Who Fell to Earth. It’s funny, touching and written in a highly appealing voice” (Joanne Harris).

It was also compared to the work of authors I already liked: “This is a tender, funny novel about the often irrational ways humans behave, written in accessible prose, and invites comparison with Mark Haddon and Patrick Ness.” (The Independent on Sunday).Oh, and it’s set in Cambridge – and I live in Cambridgeshire. Do I need any more reasons?




After an ‘incident’ one wet Friday night where Professor Andrew Martin is found walking naked through the streets of Cambridge, he is not feeling quite himself. Food sickens him. Clothes confound him. Even his loving wife and teenage son are repulsive to him. He feels lost amongst a crazy alien species and hates everyone on the planet. Everyone, that is, except Newton, and he’s a dog.
What could possibly make someone change their mind about the human race. . . ?

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

What appealed: Clare is an ex-police officer who answers questions on police procedures and related topics for Writing Magazine. She was kind enough to answer a question of mine and we sometimes have twitter chats about the chaos of the writerly life on crazily busy days. That’s not why I chose her book though;let’s face it, not all of the fellow writers you ‘meet’ on the internet will write stuff you’re interested in. But the book blurb below grabbed me. The setting – a remote cottage in Wales – appealed, as did the idea that the main character is making a fresh start (I like books about fresh starts. I like that inherent optimism). Also, Clare’s book sounds darn intriguing and has got some amazing reviews – most of which mention a mind-blowing twist! I can’t wait!


A tragic accident. It all happened so quickly. She couldn’t have prevented it. Could she?

In a split second, Jenna Gray’s world descends into a nightmare. Her only hope of moving on is to walk away from everything she knows to start afresh. Desperate to escape, Jenna moves to a remote cottage on the Welsh coast, but she is haunted by her fears, her grief and her memories of a cruel November night that changed her life forever.
Slowly, Jenna begins to glimpse the potential for happiness in her future. But her past is about to catch up with her, and the consequences will be devastating . . .

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

What appealed: I’d been  aware of Kate Morton because her books kept coming up in articles and blog posts about slipstream novels. She was often mentioned in the same breath as Kate Mosse, and that can only be a good thing. I read through all her book blurbs to pick a first one to try, and this is the one – after a bit of dithering – that I picked!


The Distant Hours by Kate Morton, author of the best-selling The House of Riverton, is a heart-breaking story of love and loss with a devastating secret at its heart.

Edie Burchill and her mother have never been close, but when a long lost letter arrives with the return address of Milderhurst Castle, Kent, printed on its envelope, Edie begins to suspect that her mother’s emotional distance masks an old secret.

Evacuated from London as a thirteen year old girl, Edie’s mother is chosen by the mysterious Juniper Blythe, and taken to live at Millderhurst Castle with the Blythe family.

Fifty years later, Edie too is drawn to Milderhurst and the eccentric Sisters Blythe. Old ladies now, the three still live together, the twins nursing Juniper, whose abandonment by her fiancé in 1941 plunged her into madness. Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst Castle, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in the distant hours has been waiting a long time for someone to find it . . .

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

What appealed: Letters fascinate me, and I love books of letters and books about letters. So this tagline grabbed me: ‘At the heart of The Husband’s Secret is a letter that’s not meant to be read…’


Mother of three and wife of John-Paul, Cecilia discovers an old envelope in the attic. Written in her husband’s hand, it says: to be opened only in the event of my death.

Curious, she opens it – and time stops. John-Paul’s letter confesses to a terrible mistake which, if revealed, would wreck their family as well as the lives of others.

Cecilia – betrayed, angry and distraught – wants to do the right thing, but right for who? If she protects her family by staying silent, the truth will worm through her heart. But if she reveals her husband’s secret, she will hurt those she loves most . . .

Perfect for fans of Jodi Picoult, or anyone who enjoyed One Moment, One Morning or The Midwife’s Confession, The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty is about the things we know, the things we don’t, and whether or not we ever get to choose. Above all, though, it’s about how we must live with the consequences of our actions – whether we like it or not.

So, what do you think to these four then? Read them? Want to read them now? 🙂

Sharing my Birthday Book Blurbs: Part 1

Lucky me! I had a birthday recently (21 again – obviously), and when I put time aside to jot down a few book titles on my birthday list, I saw that one of them was in that angel/devil Amazon’s 3 for £10 offer. Whoops. That sent me looking for others in the same offer…

Lucky me again, because I got all seven books on my list. So I thought I’d bore you with why they appealed to me and then make you buzz with booky excitement by sharing their blurbs.

In this post: The three books my teens bought me.

birthday books 1

Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey

What appealed: The title, the tagline (‘How do you solve a mystery when you can’t remember the clues?’), the fact that it’s about lost memories (something I’ve have in mind to write about since wandering around Chloe Meineck’s fascinating and touching Memory Box ‘Identity’ exhibition at The Design Museum in London back in 2013), and the blurb…


Maud is forgetful. She makes a cup of tea and doesn’t remember to drink it. She goes to the shops and forgets why she went. Sometimes her home is unrecognizable – or her daughter Helen seems a total stranger.

But there’s one thing Maud is sure of: her friend Elizabeth is missing. The note in her pocket tells her so. And no matter who tells her to stop going on about it, to leave it alone, to shut up, Maud will get to the bottom of it.

Because somewhere in Maud’s damaged mind lies the answer to an unsolved seventy-year-old mystery. One everyone has forgotten about.

Everyone, except Maud . . .

The Girl in the Photograph by Kate Riordan

What appealed: This came up in a search for slipstream fiction (on Goodreads, I think). The blurb says it’s ‘for fans of Kate Mosse‘ (excuse me while I fangirl) ‘and Kate Morton‘ (give me time. Guess whose book will feature in Birthday Book Blurbs Part 2?). My son was very intrigued by the blurb, so without further ado…


A haunting novel about two women separated by decades but entwined by fate.

When Alice Eveleigh arrives at Fiercombe Manor during the long, languid summer of 1933, she finds a house steeped in mystery and brimming with secrets. Sadness permeates its empty rooms and the isolated valley seems crowded with ghosts, none more alluring than Elizabeth Stanton whose only traces remain in a few tantalisingly blurred photographs. Why will no one speak of her? What happened a generation ago to make her vanish?

As the sun beats down relentlessly, Alice becomes ever more determined to unearth the truth about the girl in the photograph – and stop her own life from becoming an eerie echo of Elizabeth’s . . .

Station Eleven by Emily St.John Mandel

What appealed: I read about this novel months ago, but naughtily I’ve got no idea where. Maybe it was recommended on someone else’s blog, or perhaps in a ‘must read’ column in a newspaper. I really like the sound of it,  anyway – I like it bit of apocalypse, me – but I had no idea that it won the Arthur C.Clarke award last month) at about the same time I put it on my list. I’m surprised it was on the 3 for £10, then! George R.R. Martin said: “One of the 2014 books that I did read stands above all the others, however: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel . . . It’s a deeply melancholy novel, but beautifully written, and wonderfully elegiac, a book that I will long remember, and return to.” Now I’ve put that, I’m wondering if that’s how I heard about it – on a George R.R. Martin Top Ten Reads or the like… yes it was. He named it his favourite novel of 2014 here.


What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.

One snowy night in Toronto famous actor Arthur Leander dies on stage whilst performing the role of a lifetime. That same evening a deadly virus touches down in North America.

The world will never be the same again.

Twenty years later Kirsten, an actress in the Travelling Symphony, performs Shakespeare in the settlements that have grown up since the collapse.

But then her newly hopeful world is threatened.

If civilization was lost, what would you preserve? And how far would you go to protect it?

Read any of these? What did you think? I can’t wait to get stuck in, but I have one book to finish (Matthew Plampin’s The Devil’s Acre) and another to read first.

The Next Big Thing (In My Dreams)

It’s Wednesday so I am duty bound to stand up and be counted as the Next Big Thing. Or possibly be a handy target for passing custard pies -always a danger when you stand up, particularly on a peak. That’s why I moved to Cambridgeshire. There aren’t any peaks 😉

I was nominated by the lovely Teresa Morgan, whom I have never met but, comfortingly, she sounds as batty as me when we chat on the Wonderful Wide Web. So if you haven’t read her Next Big Thing blog post, you’d better jolly well hop over there and do so. (No, not right now! Sit down and read mine first).

What is the title of your next book?

Oh no. Fallen at the the first hurdle. I haven’t decided on a final title yet; its working title is Tamsyn, because that’s the name of the heroine. However, it may well end up being called Watch the Wall, My Darling, which is from the poem mentioned below.

Where did the idea for the book come from?

In 2010 we went on holiday to Cornwall and I picked up a fascinating book about Cornish history, traditions and folklore. Then last year while studying one of my final year modules – Children’s Literature -for my Literature Degree, I came across Rudyard Kipling’s evocative A Smuggler’s Song in the poetry anthology. Bam! It sparked a plot for a YA novel based around smuggling in Cornwall.

I was drafting an outline and doing research for it when I happened to spend a lovely day in Chesterfield at a Pocket Novel Workshop run by the delightful Sally Quilford (highly recommended. Sally is very welcoming and very funny!). So when I came to write scenes, not surprisingly my head was filled with windswept fishing villages, smuggling, boats, tunnels and mysterious lights. Not all those things have made it into this book – although those that haven’t might still make an appearance. The book is likely to come up too short, as the outline was designed for the original Pocket Novel length of 30k and hasn’t grown much since. I need to create another Event, which will probably take two or three chapters, and some of what Teresa Morgan calls additing too 🙂

What genre does your book fall under?

Historical romance. Hopefully well-balanced between the two!

What actors would you choose to play the characters in the movie rendition of your novel?

I think Keira Knightley (above) might make a good Tamsyn. She does a believable feisty. Or perhaps Natalie Portman.  Simeon was quite fuzzy in my mind for a long while – he kept changing – but now he is definitely Emun Elliott.

He’s handsome but does the desperate haunted look very well! Simeon would have to be quite gaunt and ill-kempt at the beginning, and I think Emun could carry that off. See?

What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

A fiercely independent woman learns to compromise when she takes in a handsome lodger with a tragic past!

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

Well I’m hoping it will fit into the Easy Reads Caress Line (Easy Reads were meant to replace My Weekly PNs), because although the original pocket novels are coming back (see Sally Quilford’s post on the return of pocket novels), the new flyer says Maggie Seed only wants Second World War onwards. As mine is set at the end of the 18th century, I don’t think it qualifies, sadly! A shame because I had the impression that the historical pocket novels were popular.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

I’m still working on it! I started the first draft during NaNoWriMo last year but had to stop after a fortnight, at 18750 words. I hadn’t touched it again until this NaNo; I’ve spent about 8 days on it so far, and it’s up to 27993 words.

What other books would you compare this story to within the genre?

That’s a tricky one. I would love to say E.V. Thompson’s Cornish novels – such a massive loss to historical fiction when he died this year, he is a hard act for anyone to follow. And perhaps Jennifer Donelly because she writes very determined feisty women.

Who or what inspired you to write this book?

I love historical fiction and women who are capable, and as I said above, the initial spark for writing about smuggling was A Smuggler’s Song. And Cornwall because it’s a fascinating place with a wealth of smuggling history. I love hanging fiction on a factual framework, whether it’s a mere skeleton or a really detailed event or character (to my mind one of the finest examples of this is Tracey Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures).

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

Hopefully, like the novels of the much-revered EV Thompson, my finished novel can deliver a real sense of place and history without overwhelming the story – so that the reader feels they have painlessly seen and learnt things whilst still being entertained. But then for me, that is the job of fiction: to broaden our horizons by taking us on an entertaining journey which never involves leaving our chair.

So that’s me. Probably not the Next Big Thing, but hopefully a slightly bigger thing than I am now (admittedly this could be achieved more easily by forgetting the writing and eating the custard pies…). The next Next Big Thing will be another Twitter writing pal, Sinead Fitzgibbon. Sinead describes herself as ‘Writer, blogger and lover of books, history, art and food!’ and is the author of four History in an Hour titles.

*Takes off crown and lobs it in Sinead’s direction*  Over to you! 😀