For the love of the land
Tatjana Soli’s new book is tricky. You think it’s about one thing, but it’s about something else. And then something else yet again. Soli’s debut, The Lotus Eaters, left big shoes to fill—it was the 2011 James Tait Black Prize winner, a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist and a New York Times Notable Book. While The Forgetting Tree may not be quite as well executed, it is still compelling and beautiful: I read it compulsively and ate up Soli’s graceful prose.
Bookworm Claire Nagy knows nothing about agriculture when she arrives at her new husband’s sprawling California citrus ranch. But she falls in love with the land and its work, so much so that neither her young son’s tragic death nor her divorce can bring her to leave, even with the farm in trouble. Ranchers all around her are selling out to developers—the writing is on the wall—and her grown daughters have left, but Claire will not budge. One understands why: Soli’s descriptions of the orchards, the fruit and Claire’s love of the land make one want to go there and stay. Even when she gets breast cancer, Claire refuses to leave, although she needs a caregiver.
In walks the intriguing Minna, who has arrived from Dominica by way of Cannes and Cambridge, claims to be the great-granddaughter of author Jean Rhys, and desperately needs a job. Claire adores Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea and is sold. But Minna might be more devil than savior. From here, the novel slowly folds in questions of colonialism and materialism and keeps readers guessing about Minna’s loving care: is it truly loving? As her troubled side emerges, the weakened Claire’s naïve trust in her is terrifying.
Soli has again created characters readers will love and care about. She does so with deceptively simple grace: Their yearnings breeze right into your life. And while the book is more cerebral than visceral, Claire’s future and Minna’s past are questions that keep the pages turning. The Forgetting Tree is a journey worth taking.