To fall in love when you least expect it disrupts the body’s natural rhythm. But that’s what makes the experience so worthwhile. There’s no preparation involved, no second-guessing --- all of that comes later. In just one jumble of strung-together moments, what you thought life had in store for you changes in a single glorifying instant, and afterward, there’s no going back to the life you once knew. At the crux of Susan Wiggs’s latest stand-alone novel, THE APPLE ORCHARD, protagonist Tess Delaney experiences the thrill of being slowly (but assuredly) swept off her feet, and so much more. In just a few short weeks, in the process of uncovering long-kept family secrets, Tess finds herself not only a true partner, but also a family she never thought she had.
"...a complicated and engrossing glimpse into one family’s fractured past, and a shared future that remains --- at least up until the gratifying Epilogue --- fragile and uncertain."
With more than 40 books (including the New York Times bestselling Lakeshore Chronicles series) under her belt, Wiggs is a pro at setting up the pieces of a carefully crafted puzzle. Her first requirement? An unsuspecting protagonist in need of a lifestyle overhaul. Tess Delaney, a hard-edged and meticulously busy workaholic, lives agreeably alone in San Francisco. Raised by a single mother and grandmother, she dates occasionally and half-heartedly, and socializes with her acquaintances in much the same vein. Her real passion lies in inanimate objects --- a job researching, restoring, appraising, and sometimes selling potentially valuable antiques and other found treasures at auction to the highest bidder. The work is stressful --- so stressful that Tess winds up in the emergency room with a panic attack after receiving an unexpected visit from a mysterious (and incredibly attractive) stranger named Dominic. According to Mr. Tall, Dark and Handsome, Tess is the long-lost heir to half of her grandfather’s near-bankrupt apple orchard and vast hundred-acre estate in Sonoma Valley, California. The trouble is, Tess didn’t know that she had a living grandfather, or a half-sister named Isabel.
So what would a treasure hunter do next? Dig for answers, of course. In an uncharacteristically spontaneous decision, Tess allows Dominic to whisk her off to Bella Vista in a small plane (yes, Wiggs is well aware of what buttons to push; that hunky man is a pilot aside from being the executor of the estate) to meet the half-sister she never knew she had, as well as their grandfather, Magnus, who is in a coma. If all goes as planned, Tess will correct what is bound to be a mistake about her family tree, resolve any remaining issues with the estate, and be back in San Francisco in time for her next big meeting.
But Wiggs doesn’t let Tess off that easy. While Tess is busy rifling through old papers and interviewing Magnus’s friends and neighbors for quick and easy answers, the seeds of a personality makeover are taking root. In contrast to her cold, drab life in the city, Wiggs fills Bella Vista with the enticing smell of Isabel’s cooking, the constant chatter of well-wishers popping by for a friendly chat, and the lure of a yet undiscovered family history that could alter not only her perception of her past, but also the choices she makes in building a future. No matter how determined Tess is to remain detached, the desire for change --- and to be part of a family --- runs deep, as does the hunch that her relationship with Dominic isn’t as platonic as she once thought, despite the reappearance of his manipulative ex-wife and two adorable kids. As readers along for the ride, we know what’s in store for her, even if she may not.
Tess’s thorny tussles with trust and romance aside, there are elements of THE APPLE ORCHARD that add depth and a historical backdrop to an otherwise predictably fluffy rom-com narrative. In order to explain the holes in Tess’s background, Wiggs uses flashbacks to fill in the details. In various chapters told from Magnus’s perspective (as a heroic young boy who joined the resistance in Denmark during World War II after his parents were killed by the Germans) and some relayed by Tess’s mother (as a pregnant college student in Berkeley whose boyfriend returned to his wife), a more thorough picture of unrequited love and necessary sacrifice emerges, restoring agency to each character’s roster of flawed decisions. What readers are left with is a complicated and engrossing glimpse into one family’s fractured past, and a shared future that remains --- at least up until the gratifying Epilogue --- fragile and uncertain.
Will Tess give up her fancy life in the big city for more serenity and a chance with Dominic? Will Isabel find a way to refinance and prevent foreclosure on the estate? Will either of them find out the truth about their family? With Wiggs at the helm, the answer is invariably yes --- it’s how it all happens that’s the real surprise.
** Reviewer’s note: As in many of her other books, tasty-looking recipes can be found at the beginning of each section head. Here are a few to look forward to: Danish apple pie and caramel apple topping, lavender scones, grape and rosemary focaccia, tweed kettle pie (a creamy, cheesy fish and veggie pie), baked hot chocolate. Yum!
Reviewed by Alexis Burling on May 3, 2013