St. Martin’s Press (September 2012), Hardcover (ISBN 1250001048 / 9781250001047)
Fiction, 416 pages
Source: ARC from publisher
Reason for reading: TLC Book Tour (featured in CBSLA’s Summer Reading Guide)
Opening lines: “He was a respectable and loyal man, Octavio Mejia, the father of six children, and he had been late to leave that day, treating an infestation of whitefly on the newly planted Valencia trees. It was a Friday evening, his daughter’s quinceañera, and he hurried the stick shift into reverse and stepped hard on the gas with his heavy, rubber-soled workboot even as the car bounced over a small mound under the lemon tree where he had parked for shade.
“Forster and Claire had insisted he go on with the family celebration even though they would not attend. But he also was in mourning for the missing boy. Did they not see? Octavio had worked hard his whole life and mainly had a mountain of bills to show for it. The quinceañera had cost his whole paycheck for two months, Forster chipping in a hefty bonus, and even then, his wife, Sofia, and his teenaged girls were not quite satisfied that it would out-shine the neighbors’ recent parties.”
Book description, from the publisher’s website:
When Claire Nagy marries Forster Baumsarg, the only son of prominent California citrus ranchers, she knows she’s consenting to a life of hard work, long days, and worry-fraught nights. But her love for Forster is so strong, she turns away from her literary education and embraces the life of the ranch, succumbing to its intoxicating rhythms and bounty until her love of the land becomes a part of her. Not even the tragic, senseless death of her son Joshua at kidnappers’ hands, her alienation from her two daughters, or the dissolution of her once-devoted marriage can pull her from the ranch she’s devoted her life to preserving.
But despite having survived the most terrible of tragedies, Claire is about to face her greatest struggle: an illness that threatens not only to rip her from her land but take her very life. And she’s chosen a caregiver, the inscrutable, Caribbean-born Minna, who may just be the darkest force of all.
Comments: Two of the qualities that made Tatjana Soli’s The Lotus Eaters such a standout debut novel were a strong sense of place and a page-turning plot that demanded attention. Both of these were enhanced by Soli’s gorgeous writing. Although the specifics of those qualities are very different in her second novel, The Forgetting Tree, they’re all still there.
The Forgetting Tree almost feels like several novels in one. It’s the story of a family in the aftermath of a horrible act of violence; it’s an exploration of that family’s ties to the land; it’s the tale of a mysterious stranger who enters that family–told from both sides. It made me wonder at times whether Soli might have decided, at some point, to combine several originally unrelated story ideas and see what developed–which sounds a little haphazard, maybe, but it mostly seems to work, largely because most of it is centered on one character.
As the child of immigrants, Claire Nagy finds Forster Baumsarg’s family legacy of citrus farming almost as appealing as Forster himself, and the early years of their marriage are about nurturing both the land and a growing family. Then tragedy strikes, and Claire clings more tightly to the farm than ever, even as her husband and daughters grow more apart from it, and from each other. Eventually Claire’s the only one left…and she gets breast cancer. In need of a live-in companion while she goes through treatment, she welcomes a beautiful, intriguing West Indian woman into her home. Minna is mercurial and mysterious, but Claire may prefer her that way; it allows her to believe what she wants to believe about her. And then, just when the reader isn’t entirely sure what to believe about Minna either, Soli completely switches gears to her perspective, although she ultimately returns the story to Claire.
The Forgetting Tree is a novel that feels both sprawling and intimate–it has the scope of a family saga, but is primarily told from a single character’s perspective. Soli retains the gifts for vivid and evocative physical description she showed in The Lotus Eaters, and shows herself equally adept at creating complex psychological landscapes; many of the scenes between Claire and Minna feel fluid and dreamlike.
Soli’s second novel is ambitious in a very different way from her first, and I appreciate that she’s exploring other directions, and I think her writing is capable of sometimes elevating her material. Ultimately, I didn’t find The Forgetting Tree as satisfying as The Lotus Eaters, but Tatjana Soli is a writer whose work I intend to continue following.