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ORCHARD by Larry Watson

ORCHARD

By Larry Watson

Pub Date: Aug. 19th, 2003
ISBN: 0-375-50723-X
Publisher: Random House

The art world is the only winner in this bleak look at an unhappy quartet: a painter, his model, and their spouses.

Opening shot: a man with a pistol sliding pell-mell down a snow-covered orchard to reach an artist’s studio. But Watson (Laura, 2000, etc.) plays with chronology in dizzying fashion, and that opening is a prelude to the climax. So let’s back up. In 1946, Henry House marries Sonja Skordahl in rural Wisconsin. Though Sonja has yet to master the nuances of her second language (her dirt-poor Norwegian parents shipped her to the US when she was 12), she understands from the get-go that Henry can be as “unyielding as stone.” He is a conventional man, an apple-grower like his father, and an outdoorsman. Character is destiny. If only Henry had sold his horse, Buck, at Sonja’s urging, it would not have caused their little boy’s death. In his grief, though, Henry turns to Buck, not Sonja. There’s a dumb accident, again involving Buck, and Henry can’t work. How to pay the bills? Secretly, Sonja poses nude for the internationally renowned Ned Weaver, whose pattern is to bed and discard his models in short order. But Sonja is different. Behind her sorrowful beauty is a secret he can’t unlock. She represents the supreme challenge of his career, and he exercises patience, both as artist and philanderer. Meanwhile, tongues wag. Henry’s equally conventional sister Phyllis scolds Sonja, but then, in a moving about-face and moment of transcendent sisterhood, accepts her credo. Sonja is not the property of either man: “I belong to myself.” Thinking differently, Henry ruins all their lives, though Ned’s wife Harriet, his faithful disciple, sells his paintings of Sonja for a cool four million.

For a character-driven work, this is a disappointing bunch. Henry is a bore, Ned a stereotype of the artist as egomaniac, and Harriet short-changed. Only Sonja stirs the soul. Watson’s sixth is graced by his customary fine detail work, but it’s not enough.