Romance, political intrigue and a woman’s discovery of her heritage are the themes that wind through Cindy Martinusen’s beautifully detailed ORCHID HOUSE.
Julia Bentley is still stinging from a broken relationship with a man with whom she expected to spend the rest of her life. When Julia’s grandfather dies, she is charged with traveling 6,000 miles to the Philippines to oversee his funeral arrangements. She also must decide what to do with Hacienda Esperanza, “the plantation of hope,” her family’s lovely but dilapidated estate.
New to the exotic islands, Julia feels as if she had come home. As “Captain Morrison’s granddaughter” she is loved and made much over by the women of the hacienda and relatives she has never known. Life in San Francisco recedes, and a new chapter in Julia’s life begins. “The thought of her life in the past few years was like a painting, drained of nearly all color.”
The Philippines are even more appealing for Julia due to a handsome --- and single --- lawyer, Markus Santos, and it’s love at first sight. Laudably, Martinusen adeptly avoids the “I hate him/I love him” course of events that turn so many plots into a cliché.
What is most appealing about ORCHID HOUSE is its beautiful settings --- the lush island, the mayhem of Manila, the details about the Filipino people and their traditions (including an evenhanded portrayal of a violent cockfight witnessed by Julia). Readers’ mouths will water at the descriptions of halo-halo (Filipino ice cream with fruit, beans and jam) and the spices of Filipino cuisine. The author has done her homework about the physical details, and she uses them liberally in her storyline. Occasionally, she slips into too much description --- lists of spices, for example --- instead of integrating them naturally into the story, which can slow the pacing.
Martinusen uses the phrase “a land to redeem” about the Philippines and unpacks that by showing the political unrest bubbling just under the surface. It takes a while to get into Manalo’s story, and a little more setup would have cleared away some of the confusion I felt about him at the beginning. She portrays well his feelings of irresolution between his country and its demands and his family, and his gradual weariness with his work toward a Communist state. Martinusen does a nice job showing his motivations for good, even as he is drawn into so much that is so bad: “He hoped that by his necessary sins, his sons might one day walk a path of clear integrity without constant questioning and regret.”
An interesting side theme is the contrast between the “normal” lives of children growing up in the hacienda and the fractured lives of the children groomed to become soldiers in a guerilla village of Barangay Mahinahon. When Julia asks if the two groups of children play together, Markus replies: “The children are very separate, very different. Their minds are molded to see life in completely different ways.”
Although many parts of the novel are intriguing, the romance and the plot might have benefited from more tension. Neither quite catches fire (despite the political unrest and threats of a volcano ready to erupt at any moment). The reader will also have to suspend disbelief when Julia mimics a family yarn passed down for generations and discovers a missing orchid while out for an impromptu swim. It’s a stretch.
Martinusen’s most engaging moments come when she creates the stories Julia is told by the women of the hacienda. “This is a land of myth and folklore,” Markus tells her, and the legends and family tales she includes provides some of the best moments in the book.
Readers familiar with her earlier writing will recognize several of the elements present in Martinusen’s Winter Passing trilogy --- a protagonist trying to connect with the past, a storyline rich in detail, and interesting insights about what motivates good people to do bad things. But what is most intriguing about this story is Julia’s discovery of herself through a past she never knew she had. “We don’t always realize what is ours until finally we find it,” says Markus. After completing Martinusen’s novel, readers may find themselves more eager to explore their own heritages, even if their past lacks such a colorful backdrop.
Reviewed by Cindy Crosby on February 12, 2008