In his new novel, Larry Watson sets an engrossing story tinged with sorrow among the apple-laden trees of Wisconsin. Orchard, Watson's sixth book, evolves slowly from the experiences of a young wife and mother, Sonja Skordahl. Sent from Norway at the age of 12, Sonja develops into a physically beautiful and spiritually unique woman in picturesque Door County, Wisconsin. She marries Henry House, an apple-grower and infatuated husband.
After a family tragedy drives the couple apart, Sonja begins to sit as a model for a local painter, Ned Weaver, an obsessive genius whose passion extends to his models. Harriet, Weaver's tragic wife, completes the central quartet of characters. All four people become inextricably entangled as the relationship between artist and muse progresses toward a surprising resolution.
Watson's clear prose simply enchants. He slips effortlessly through time as each character relives a memory, reacts to a moment or looks to the future. The transitions are smooth, and the simultaneous forward and back motion of the story seems natural. These fragments of memory enhance the sweet melancholy of the novel and draw the reader into the book's rhythm. The author's sense of the land is dazzling, serving as a vibrant element for each scene. The connection between an artist and his hidden muse inevitably recalls the revelation of Andrew Wyeth's Helga pictures. For years, Wyeth painted portraits of Helga Testorf, a Prussian immigrant and neighbor, in bucolic southeastern Pennsylvania. No one, including Wyeth's wife, knew about the portraits until they were finally released in the 1980s. While Wyeth and Helga are clear inspirations for Weaver and Sonja, Watson uses the idea only as a jumping off place for his complex tale. In Orchard, Watson crafts a novel as rich and changeable as the Door County seasons. Lisa Porter is a curator at the Cheekwood Museum of Art in Nashville.