Apples! Only someone of Tracy Chevalier’s calibre can pick such an ordinary fruit and create the most mesmerising, sweeping novel centred around them. 

tracy-chevalierAs a huge fan of her earlier books, particularly Girl with a Blue Earring and The Last Runaway, I was positively giddy to be approved by HarperCollins to review her latest creation, At the Edge of the Orchard. I started reading with a great sense of anticipation.

‘They were fighting over apples again.’

applesConstant war reigns between James and Sadie Goodenough in Ohio in 1838 and onwards as they struggle to turn the inhospitable and aptly named Black Swamp into a successful apple orchard. To James, son of an eminent apple farmer in Connecticut, apples and their trees are an obsession and are treated with reverential care and none more so than his beloved Golden Pippen, a sweet-tasting ‘eater’. 

ciderspittersMeanwhile, his wife Sadie seeks solace from the misery of her life, her losses, in the applejack cider which is made from fresh ‘spitters’ apples. 

In the midst of their bitter, self-centred and often violent marriage, ten children are born and many die from the yearly ‘skeeters’  (mosquitoes). Those that survive are more slaves to their parents than children and fend for themselves in the brutal harsh world. It is a gruelling existence which is described in great detail and intensity; I felt as if I suffered with them.

Robert, the youngest son, is striking with his disarming knowing look that unsettles both James and Sadie equally; his quiet diplomacy at times succeeds in calming the household even though he is also interested in the apples.  Martha meanwhile is a sickly child, who nevertheless runs the family ‘home’ and she is pithily described by Sadie as: 

‘Martha was the runt of the litter, the only weak one left who hadn’t died. She hummed all the time, hymns to block out the sounds of Deaths footstep behind her.’

This example is just one of the variety of brilliant narrative techniques used by Tracy Chevalier in this book. Her skilful entwining of narrative voices creates a fully immersive read and it starts with a close third person (James’s) point of view interwoven with the simpler, colloquial, childlike, even bawdy and misspelt first person voice of Sadie. I felt I was involved in an intimate conversation with her at some stages. 

Altogether there are five chapters, each from a different era though some do overlap. One chapter is a masterful collection of Robert’s yearly (unanswered) letters back home following his sudden departure from Black Swamp as a child, describing his intriguing and tough adventures over seventeen years as he heads further west. The mystery as to the cause of his sudden departure is not revealed until much later, however. His life is vividly portrayed as he enters the Gold Rush in California and ultimately ends up working for Willian Lobb, a famous tree collector.  

in-wintertreesWhilst the first section of the book deals deftly with details of apple grafting, growth, picking, the second section centres around the grand sequoia of California and of Robert’s life with them. The description of the sequoia that Robert first encounters is awe-inspiring and I can visualise the whole scene exactly.

dancingThroughout the book, Tracy Chevalier expertly weaves fact with fiction, including the then recently discovered Calaveras Grove in California.  Billie Latham built the infamous stage on the stump of first giant sequoia, named The Discovery Tree, to be cut down at the Grove. As a tree agent, Robert becomes responsible under William Lobb to collect seeds and saplings to send to James Veitch, an English nurseryman for the stately homes in the UK. 

The rough pioneering life of California is recreated brilliantly with the raw hard life in San Francisco captured in minute detail whilst evoking the enthralling enticing allure of the wildlife. Robert is forced to forgo his lonely existence when one day a visitor brings the haunted past dramatically back to him.

The characterisation in At the Edge of the Orchard is superb; there is not a single false tone or word. Everyone is realistically portrayed although it is hard to feel empathy for certain characters, especially James and Sadie. 

The darkness that is all pervasive in the book would be too much without the glint of light and hope in the form of one critical person. Will she become Robert’s saviour and end the desolation that’s blighted the lives of so many? 

I fell head over heels for Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel and was swept away by the story. I’m in awe of the electrifying literary writing which remained powerful throughout. Reading the book I was emotionally overwrought as well intellectually savouring the exquisite recreation of nineteenth century Ohio and California. The ending was a crescendo of sorrows and joy. The best book of 2017 – so far!

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest and impartial review.  At the Edge of the Orchard is available to purchase although the paperback will be released on 7th February 2017 in the UK and is already for sale in the USA.


Rating:                          5 out of 5 stars.

Publisher:                     HarperCollins UK

Links:                             Amazon UK or   Amazon US 



  1. Oh wow Annika, it sounds like the read was very vivid for you. And that’s such a compliment to the author! It sounds like a great read and now for some reason I’m thinking about apples 😉

    1. Christy, I must say that after this book I haven’t looked at apples the same way again! Almost feel able to plant an orchard! 😀 The detail and descriptions in the book are so vivid and that has carried across to the review…one of those reads where after a while I’ll begin to wonder if I’ve seen a film of it.

  2. Anonymous

    Wonderful review Annika. I’m not normally into these sort of books but after reading the review I think I just might be tempted on this one. I’m looking for a couple more books on my Kindle. Love the photos too -they give a good reminder of times and lives now long vanished.


    1. It takes a knack to get the balance right between fact and fiction in this kind of book as the fact element has to slot in seamlessly with the fiction – something which the author does successfully here! Thank you for your comment, Miriam.

  3. If the book is half as good as your book review, I’ll love it! Thank you thank you I am looking forward to reading this piece of great literature. Since I consider San Francisco my home, I can’t wait to learn more about its earlier history and the trees. Always the trees.

    1. Pam, thank you so much! The book is much better, I promise!! The part about San Francisco was fascinating and particularly how quickly it grew from a small shanty town of a few hundred, to a few thousand and beyond. It sounded very rough, though and so well described I felt I was walking through the streets and living there. However, the great wilds of nature never seemed far away. Happy Reading!😀

    1. Thank you so much, Mary Ann and I really hope you enjoy the book as much as I did and find it equally compulsive reading. If you get a chance I would be very interested to know your thoughts about it after you’ve read it.

      1. The book is on the way from Amazon. I’ll dig in for the read and let you know once I am done. You can always give me a gentle reminder since I often get distracted and focus on other things. The creative brain seems to work that way. ^__^

  4. Outstanding review, Annika. I am also drawn to the 19th century, especially San Francisco. SF is such an interesting city in pretty much every time period. I do empathize with the children in the book. I know families had many children back then to work the farms, etc. So sad. On a lighter note, reminds me some of my great-great grandfather who left Ohio and along the way bought a herd of pigs to start a farm in Arkansas. When he got there, he discovered he had purchased craggy, unfit land for farming and raising animals. The pigs ran off and joined a family of wild hogs. Maybe it was just traveling from Ohio that reminded me of this 😀

    1. Lana, your poor great-great-grandfather – taking the pigs all that way only for them to run off – you can’t help but smile wryly whilst wondering how he felt. Were people just tougher in those days? The spirit of the people then seemed indomitable although there was terrible loss and hardship. It was fascinating to read about the very beginnings of San Francisco and hard to imagine it as a little hamlet or a small town. The children in the book didn’t just have to work the farm, which was common I agree, but they were emotionally and physically maltreated and neglected it was horrendous and the hardest part to read.

      1. Those had to be tough times in which to live, Annika. I feel so sorry for those poor children, bad enough to toil, but to also be mistreated. I do think people were hardier back in those times, just the fact they didn’t have air conditioning, ha ha. Things turned out well for my g-g-grandfather. He ended up marrying a successful planter’s daughter, so he had some land to farm and also some pigs that would not run off, ha ha.

        1. Lana…There is book waiting to be written here! The pigs providing the comic element in the saga. I had to smile at your air-conditioning as here in Europe we don’t have any and can’t see any point really. However in Florida it was a case of thankfully entering the cool fresh condo!

          1. Annika, I’ve been to France so I understand about Europe and AC, but in the southern U.S. it’s pretty much a requirement :-D. I have done a lot of family history and have found some things that might make a book. I did include this tale of my g-g-grandfayher in my Dancing with the Sandman book. Glad you liked the story!

  5. Thank you, Annika, for such a wonderful book review. I love books set in certain time periods and California and the gold rush appeals to me. It’s telling how hard life was in those times with the children that didn’t survive. Especially dying from mosquitoes. And the parents, James and Sadie, reading them has got to be interesting. Now the great sequoias, they are so big and tall that at the top they have their own ecosystem. A wonderful book review… JC

    1. JC, the historical element alone makes this an interesting book but the fact that Tracy Chevalier manages to create such an epic story with incredible characters makes this the best book of the year so far (for me!) The book covered so much new ground I was hooked and engrossed throughout – I’m still in awe of the sequoia trees and oddly enough reading the descriptions was just as astounding as later seeing the photos.Thank you so much for your lovely and thoughtful comment, JC. Hope you get to read the book someday.

  6. Annika, you wrote such a beautiful and engrossing review of this book! This has both fictional and historical elements, a great combination.
    I am one who usually look up books in the library and if not there; I recommend them for purchase. This works out better than my tight space becoming full of books.
    I used to have a lovely three piece oak bookshelf set full of books. 🙂 Now, I am happy I have my small collection and less to worry about.
    I wish Tracy Chevalier best wishes on her publication and book release!

    1. Robin, thank you so much and so glad you enjoyed this review. The book is an amazing blend of fact and fiction – so much so that I ended up reading up a lot afterwards about the real-life characters and the historical events.
      I love the sound of your bookshelf – was it hard to sell it/give it away?
      My house is full of bookshelves – my study, hall way, living room, bedroom…and sometimes I ask myself why I keep so many books (I’ve given lots away too) but so far they are so much part of my life, my soul. A bit sort out is well over due though!

  7. I was just thinking to myself that it all sounded a little dark and heavy when you pointed out the lighter moments, Annika. I don’t know the authoress and it’s not necessarily a book that would call to me from the library shelf but it does sound a good read. I sometimes wonder where the germ of an idea comes from in a project like this. It must have taken a huge amount of research. 🙂 🙂 Thanks for the review.

    1. Jo, you’re right, the book does have a dark feel overall however the story, characters, descriptions and settings are wondrous and there is a resolution at the end.

      Tracy Chevalier catalyst for the book developed after reading about apples in a book entitled ‘Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World’ by Michael Pollan. The list of reference books consulted is vast!

    1. Oh WOW! 😀😀 That’s amazing, Jacqui and of course I’ll drop by! This is the icing on the cake of a wonderful albeit busy day. Can’t wait to read your review of the collection inspired by bloggers here on WP. Many thanks ♥️

  8. This does sound wonderful. Hearing stories like these makes me thankful for the blessings in my life. I suppose I would have toughened up if I had to, but I appreciate I didn’t have to. I often wonder how today’s snowflakes would survive in aowlrd where life wasn’t expected to be fair or easy.

    1. The harsh gruelling life endured by the children was tough to read in places and since it was so well-written I could feel their hardship. I have no idea how people survived and alas so often they didn’t – every day I’m so happy to click on the heating, thankful for a warm cosy house and more food than we need! This was a great read and even a couple of weeks later the characters are still with me in my thoughts.

    1. Yeah! That’s great, Bette. I do hope you enjoy it and please let me know what you make of the book. It’s always interesting to share reading experiences. 😀 Wishing you a lovely weekend! ❤️

        1. Thank you and I always feel likewise. I must say this was one of the most tricky books I’ve had to review…there was so many angles and as usual I didn’t want to give too much away!

  9. I love your reviews, Annika. I’m always tempted to rush over to Amazon and purchase the books. This sounds wonderful with a host of diverse and interesting characters – my draw to the book. ❤ ❤ Thanks for the wonderful recommendation.

    1. Thank you so much, Diana, and so happy you like the reviews! The characters in the book are brilliantly created and an art of work from that viewpoint alone. So diverse and portrayed through various narrative styles – I tried to learn and retain as much as possible! If you read it, please let me know what you think, I’d love to hear your feedback. Some bad news on the book review front – I’ve got four more fantastic books (I assume!) lined up to read and review – hope you’re saving the pennies!!😃😀

  10. Annika, I’ve read several of Chevalier’s books, especially the ones about art (I used to be an art teacher) and am always impressed by her historical foundation in each story. This one sounds like a fascinating read – thanks for an impressive review.

    1. Sharon, the historical research in this book must have been immense and of course she incorporates the knowledge brilliantly and never turns descriptions into mere information off-loading. In her Acknowledgements she lists the vast number of books she’s consulted. The only problem now is that I long to visit Yosemite and the grand sequoia trees! 😀

  11. delphini510

    Your book reviews do stand out Annika, always of high standard. So it is with “The edge if the orchard”.
    You say: “I fell head over heels for Tracy Chevalier’s latest novel and was swept away by the story. I’m in awe of the electrifying literary writing which remained powerful throughout. Reading the book I was emotionally overwrought as well intellectually savouring the exquisite recreation of nineteenth century Ohio and California. The ending was a crescendo of sorrows and joy”
    Fantastic statement! I am totally taken with the book and can’t wait to read it; what happened to little Martha? So many questions in spite of all you show.:)

    Thank you for the lovely images, I especially love the trees.

    1. Thank you so much for your lovely comment, Mirja! And I’m so glad that many questions are raised but left unanswered – it is so tricky with book reviews to write enough to explain the story, show the style of book and its positives and negative points without revealing too much! Well, I won’t say anymore about Martha or the others…Happy Reading 😃❤️ PS. Whilst reading the book I became fascinated with the giant sequoia trees and just had to do some research, they are truly awesome and you have to see them next to people to understand their true size.

  12. I kind of wish I hadn’t read your review as I’ve just finished the book and am about to start writing my review; I’m going to be hard pressed to equal yours. It took me a while to start appreciating this book but by the end I certainly did.

    1. Oh no, Cathy, I know exactly how you feel and this has happened to me a couple of times! How about a couple of day’s break before you start writing your review? I’ll look forward to reading it. 😀 The first part of the book was unusual and I did feel it had that ‘introductory’ feel to it – but then, wham it was like crash landing in their world. Many thanks for your great comment.

      1. Good advice. You’ve summed up that first part well. I found the portrait of James and Sadie’s marriage – their coldness towards each other and particularly Sadie’s cruelty – quite depressing. And then Robert’s sad little letters… But then, part three turned it around completely for me.

        1. Exactly! Without the lift there and the other lighter moments later it would have been too dark and depressing and ultimately pointless book I feel. There has to be a resolution and redemption.

    1. Thank you so much, Jill! 😀 I fear you may be disappointed regarding the cover for the American version of this book as that is a basket of apples! I agree, this is the most alluring of the three versions I have seen the publisher use. The books are quite pricey at the moment but hopefully the price will drop soon. Enjoy the book and wishing you a lovely weekend – the weeks seem to flash by!

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