The Apple Orchard
Family is a complicated thing. Some would like to lose theirs (or at least a few members of it). Others long for a closer relationship with theirs. Yet others long for any family at all. And almost all families have secrets. Some of those secrets completely redefine what we think of as family, such as the one in The Apple Orchard.
Tess Delaney is a treasure hunter. Her job for Sheffield House has her unearthing lost or stolen items and returning them to their rightful owners. If she can talk those owners into selling the item through her company, it is just icing on the cake (in the form of a nice bonus for her). When she finds a lovely necklace once confiscated by the Nazis and returns it to Annelise Winther, beloved daughter of the original owner, she knows she has done some truly good work. Originally upset that the impoverished Annelise doesn’t want to turn the treasure into cash, she is delighted when the elderly lady graciously offers her a tea set to sell in its place. It is an Empire set, very rare and sure to earn both of them a nice paycheck. That is how Tess’s career has been going – every cloud has had a silver lining, and at the end of every rainbow has been a pot of gold. Within a week of that coup, she has a meeting with the big boss and buzz around the office is that she will soon be heading from San Francisco to New York, not just a move from West to East but one straight to the top.
She arrives early for the big meeting so is surprised to find an extremely handsome man already waiting for her. She is even more surprised to find that the man is not her boss but Dominic Rossi, a representative of her grandfather’s estate. Her grandfather had a bad fall and is currently in a coma, with low odds for survival. Since Tess didn’t even know she had a grandfather, finding out that she is in line to inherit half his estate is quite the shock. Finding out the other half is willed to a sister she never knew existed is even more shocking. The stress leads to an emergency room visit and a stern talking to from a doctor who encourages her to take a good look at her lifestyle and make some changes.
While Tess isn’t sure she will be doing that she is sure of one thing: she has every intention – in fact a piercing need – to learn more about this previously unknown family. The first thing she does is call her mother. As usual her calls go straight to voicemail, but undaunted Tess takes step two. She flies with Dominic to Archangel, CA to meet the sister she has never known and try to get some answers regarding her father, a man her mother had always claimed was a one night stand with no last name.
The surprises keep coming once she arrives at Bella Vista Orchard, her grandfather’s farm. There are surprising facts surrounding both her birth and that of her sister Isabella. There are secrets hidden in her grandfather’s notes from WWII (including a surprising connection to Ms. Winther). There is the mystery surrounding her father’s death. And then there is the treasure shown in an old picture, the hunt for which will lead Tess to the biggest secret of them all.
The main focus of this book is on family interactions. Isabella and Tess are sisters who share the same father but do so only because he lacked integrity in his intimate relationships. Both need to learn to live with that and the fact that the man who holds all the answers to their questions may never awaken from his coma to answer them. Isabella has to deal with that possible loss but Tess has to learn to form a relationship with someone who may never be able to respond to her. Tess also has to learn to work out the relationship with her mother. When Shannon does finally answer her calls – and comes out to visit Bella Vista to provide some answers – the problems with their mother/daughter bond are highlighted. They are the only family each other has. As Tess learns to realize just what that means she sees how important it is that they arrive at some sort of understanding- but can they?
All of this has taken Tess from someone who has lived a life of shallow connections to a person with intimate but messy ties. However, her greatest challenge may just lie in her growing relationship with Dominic. He is everything she ever dreamed of – handsome, successful, multilingual and multi-talented. But he comes with the baggage of two adorable children and an ex who won’t let go. Should she pursue this relationship in the midst of the complications that are now her life? Or should she step away from the greatest thing that ever happened to her because it is too much of a risk?
Oddly, while I liked both Dominic and Tess, their romance was one of the problems I had with the book. So much was going on with Tess and her family that I couldn’t believe she had time for a high maintenance relationship. And the author whiplashes between making the relationship high maintenance with a stubborn ex-wife, to making it low maintenance with kids who are sweet and accepting of the new lady in dad’s life. Tess and Dominic are also amazingly forgiving of each other for anything and do not really see obstacles as problems. The romance is rushed due to the resolution of other plot points, and the result is that the entire relationship felt fake to me.
What also felt out of step to me was Tess’s apparent ease with stepping out of her former life. It is made abundantly clear that a long absence would cost her her job, and yet Tess, a workaholic mere weeks ago, seems strangely ambivalent to this fact. I never quite bought into her willingness to sacrifice everything she had to get involved with a family she never knew.
On the other hand, I found the mysteries of the treasure hunt wholly engrossing. The story regarding that flips from WWII to the 1980’s to the present and runs the gauntlet of everything from heroism to cowardice and theft. It includes great tales of love, betrayal, and friendships that last over decades. It also ties the three main female characters together and shows how their shared past can lead to a stronger shared present.
Another strong aspect of the novel is the summertime ambiance. From the rich food cooked by Isabella to the sweet, bubbly wines made at Dominic’s vineyards, the novel had the feel of an extended vacation in wine country. I could almost hear the bees buzzing and smell the apples getting ripe for picking in the orchard. The author does a delightful job with the location, making you feel as though you are walking through the Sonoma countryside with the characters. It is a good feeling and one you are almost sad to leave.
The intriguing (but not scary) nature of the mystery and sweet, easy love story gave the whole book a feeling of being incredibly light even while it was dealing with some dark subjects. The sunny mood created by the excellent scenic descriptions made the book feel like a vacation. If you are someone who likes a slow summer read that doesn’t demand too much of you – or if you like women’s fiction dealing with mother/daughter/sister relationships – I am happy to recommend this book to you.