Tracy Chevalier has penned an intriguing opening for her latest novel, At the Edge of the Orchard, a book whose subject—Johnny Appleseed and a family of apple growers—might seem less than compelling:
Excerpt: They were fighting over apples again. He wanted to grow more eaters, to eat. She wanted more spitters, to drink. It was an argument rehearsed so often that by now they both played their parts perfectly, their words flowing smooth and monotonous around each other since they had heard them enough times not to have to listen anymore.
What made the fight between sweet and sour different this time was not that James Goodenough was tired; he was always tired. It wore a man down, carving a life from the Black Swamp. It was not that Sadie Goodenough was hung over; she was often hung over. The difference was that John Chapman had been with them the night before. Of all the Goodenoughs, only Sadie stayed up and listened to him talk late into the night, occasionally throwing pinecones onto the fire to make it flare. The spark in his eyes and belly and God knows where else had leapt over to her like a flame finding its true path from one curled wood shaving to another. She was always happier, sassier, and surer of herself after John Chapman visited.
My take-away: Two people in conflict from the get-go, always a good start. But what lifts this to a masterful level is the language, the metaphor of the fire, and the description of relationships headed for a blow-up.
In the first paragraph, we learn the argument is an old one and in the second what makes the argument different this time. Now jealousy enters the picture. And the last line of that paragraph is a lesson in itself: how to convey that Sadie was attracted to John without using words like “feelings” or a cliché like “she was walking on air.”
Also Chevalier sneaks in back story that manages to keep our focus on the present because her primary purpose in presenting the couple’s history is to sharpen the significance of what’s happening now.
I’ve only started reading this novel so I don’t know how well it fulfills the promise of this powerful beginning. If you’ve read it, please leave a comment.