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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Orchard, Larry Watson explores the volatile forces at work among four disparate people in the northern reaches of Wisconsin. Henry and Sonja House are a couple with a history in this place; it is Henry’s family who has owned the apple orchards that give the novel its title and which has established Henry as a presence in the community. Sonja, Henry’s wife, is a Swedish immigrant still looking to make a place for herself in this community and in her marriage. Ned Weaver is a very successful artist who has escaped the East Coast art world and brought his fame, his work, and his weaknesses to this rural upstate community. And Harriet Weaver is the woman who has long suffered as Ned’s wife, who has put up with his infidelities, and who has served as his muse.

In Sonja, Ned discovers a model with unique and extraordinary qualities, and when she begins modeling for Weaver, Sonja discovers a man who (unlike her husband) looks attentively and seriously at her as a woman and as a woman-with-a-body. Ned sees in Sonja a woman who is fearful of disappearing, who is diminishing in the gray light of a marriage marred by the death of a young son. Ned’s portraits of Sonja—many of them nudes—provide them both with a renewed sense of self, though Ned’s interests are clearly more selfish than are Sonja’s.

What both people seem to forget is just where they are. Word spreads of Sonja’s nude sessions with “the artist,” Henry becomes the object of some humiliation among his small circle of male friends—Sonja has become the object of more than just the artist’s gaze, it seems—in this small town, and Harriet herself begins to lose patience with her puzzle of a husband. These characters, humans all, think and do things that complicate their lives in little and large ways. Henry seeks some redress for the wrongs he believes he has endured. Sonja claims autonomy of body and soul. Ned struggles with the loss of that which has inspired him while Harriet, against her better judgement, rescues all that was thought to have been lost.

Larry Watson, in Orchard, tells a compelling tale. His novel weaves four distinct stories into one powerful narrative, and forces readers to pay attention to the lives of these men and women estranged by place and by love.