The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season
The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season has the plot and makings of your traditional piece of women’s fiction. The abused women, the family secrets, the stalker and the Good Man the heroine falls for, the traumatized child who blossoms under the summer sun; the tropes here are familiar and well-worn. But Molly Fader’s talent makes all the difference and manages to create a compelling atmosphere from a series of stock plotlines, and the results are admirable.
Hope Wright arrives in the middle of the night with a black eye, a bloody face and her silent ten-year-old daughter, Jenny, nicknamed Tink, upon the doorstep of a rundown cherry farm in Northern Michigan. Orchard House, located in Elk Falls, was where Hope’s late mother grew up and where Hope once lived with both her parents, though she has no memory of the place. Hope is running from an abusive stalker ex, a man she hit in self-defense and who is using his injuries to keep her in his life and in line; she knows she’ll find solace at the cherry farm, but things don’t quite go that way to start with, as she’s immediately confronted by a woman with a shotgun guarding the place from intruders – who turns out to be her Aunt Peg.
Aunt Peg is a tough old salt of a woman who gives her niece a bottle of Vicodin for her black eye the first night she’s on the farm, just to make sure she’s not an IV drug user like Hope’s mother Denise was. While Hope has no memory of visiting the farm, Peg knows that Hope has been there – that in fact, her stay was quite a lengthy one – and was ruined by a choice Denise made, which fractured her relationship with Peg and Hope’s connection to Peg. Denise eventually kicked the habit but had an off-kilter relationship with Hope, one part uncaring and one part smothering, which was never properly resolved before Denise died.
Peg agrees to put up Hope and Tink in the barn, if Hope and Tink promise to help her bring in the cherry harvest. She has no help on this farm that’s seen better days, beyond her dog, Nelson, and Abel, a farmer on a neighboring patch of land who helps out every cherry season and takes a shine to Hope. Peg does not cherish memories – Denise’s destructive choices have ensured that she wouldn’t – and her ruined relationship with her ex-husband, Hank, has reinforced that belief, so she doesn’t expect to become attached to Hope and Tink.
Cherry season, together with Hope’s help in refurbishing the rundown far, begin to soften Peg’s stance on that notion. Soon Hope begins to put down roots. But will Hope’s stalker resurface and ruin things?
There’s a lot of beautiful things running beneath the surface of this book – chief among them Molly Fader’s easygoing but impressive way of building a story. The way she writes about the impact a traumatic upbringing has had on all three Wright women is fascinating, and she allows time, their shared company and life on the farm to heal them, as opposed to their being healed by love from outside.
Fader captures quite well the sensation of what it is to work land, and how it feels to flex your muscles stiff picking fruit.
Tink feels like a realistic ten-year-old, and I adored crusty Peg. Hope comes off as bland but strong-willed, as does Abel. The Abel/Hope romance is just decent, lacking a certain punch, but leaves the reader happy that Hope – who has suffered enough – is happy. I liked the lived-in feeling of Hank and Peg’s relationship more.
Best of all is the multi-generational friendship between the Wright women and Peg’s lifelong friend, Carole, who has been estranged from Peg for reasons I won’t specify here. It’s sweet and fun.
Ultimately, The Bitter and Sweet of Cherry Season is, well, bitter and sweet, and a pretty good slice of women’s fiction even with its imperfections.