Being there: ‘In the Orchard,’ by Eliza Minot

Meryl Natchez

Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books. Michael Cunningham’s reworking of those themes in The Hours is also terrific. If you’re a fan of either of those, In the Orchard, Eliza Minot’s third novel, will not disappoint. Of the family that includes authors Susan and George Minot, Eliza Minot has the same skill with the extended stream of consciousness, with the added plus of a pitch-perfect ear when it comes to children and the weight and pleasure of being in charge of them. I’ve been waiting for Minot’s next book since The Brambles, which also has some great writing about family.

In the Orchard (Knopf; 256 pages) takes place over one night and the following day, accompanied by musings, commentary, and a rich fabric of flashbacks. Unfortunately, some might label this novel as a story about motherhood. Although it certainly comes from deep within the consciousness of a young, perceptive, hyper-aware mother, it’s a story about consciousness, about how to live a responsible life in the early twenty-first century, touching on parenting, debt, romance, death, and the search for meaning amid the chaos of family life and late-stage capitalism.  

We first meet Maisie Moore, the mother in question, in the midst of a delicious dream of being debt-free: “Oh, what luxury! What absolute bliss and heavenly release to live freely and without a mortgage! No credit card debt! No student loans or used-up equity lines! … No more wondering if she was possibly causing a disease in herself, always returning, in lulled moments, to the same raw cavernous worry corner of her mind, of her abdomen!”

The dream ends with a nightmarish encounter with a poodle and her real-life baby waking and fussing. The theme of debt is a recurring theme in the narrative, as when Maisie wonders if her card will be declined at the grocery store, when she spies the price tag on her baby’s hat, or when she post-dates a check. Anyone who has struggled with money will identify with the way the lack of it can poison a moment.

As with her depiction of money troubles, every detail of Maisie’s interaction with her children, from the baby Esme to the older children, is recorded in detail, a detail I wonder how Minot was able to commit to the page, given that being in those moments (at least for me) meant submitting to them entirely, without much conscious thought. The interaction with children in this book is so real, so cogent, that it made me mourn my own years as a mother with young children. That they are recorded here is a gift, a pleasure to read and experience.

Before the night ends, Maisie thinks about how she met and fell in love with her husband, what it was like to get her first period, what babies are like, and the amazing complexity and resilience of the human body, its blood, its compulsions, its nonverbal presence in all the small and large acts of living a life. There are scenes of parents at a children’s soccer game, of concerns about vaccines, of Maisie’s mother’s illness and death, interspersed with asides:

“ ‘Exercise the kindness muscle,’ Xavier would remind her on various occasions. Otherwise it will never get strong.’ Xavier had been taught, in preschool, what seemed to have escaped mankind throughout time.” There are longer, more philosophical reflections sprinkled through these memories, too: “She thought of the hordes of men and women on the train every morning, It never ceased to amaze her that everyone, everyone she saw up and about in daylight walking in the world of the upright as they managed to get on with their lives, whether they were in the mood or not, like soldiers dutifully following orders were fulfilling what they expected of themselves to fulfill. It exhausted her, all this effort. Yet the poignancy of the effort itself, the purposeful and personal grace of it all made her glad to be a human being.”

Ninety-nine pages before dawn, each full of scenes and life events, and thoughts about what’s going on, an apparently effortless flow.

Then we come to Part 2, the family trip to a “pick them yourself” orchard where the family has gone before to gather apples. Neil (Maisie’s husband) is more present in this section, the children chat, they see a dead deer on the road. There is a strange and troubling interaction with an older woman who seems at first sympathetic, but later a bit deranged. There is an encounter with a horse, who is also named Esme. But there is the same general flow of event and reflection, past and present streaming together:

“The grass. The autumn trees. Her family. Heaven is all of the ordinary: waiting in the car to pick someone up, the petty squabbling and prickly bickering, getting milk from the cooler at the store, the annoyance of taking out the trash in the rain, the lavishness of impatience, the hot water rung out in the shower, the plant not growing well and dying the dirty floor in the kitchen, the empty bank account, the  discomfort in the belly, the paradise that is confusing thoughts, the worry and the saying, life, life, life. Raising her family was busting her open, and loving her children was leading her into life so differently than before … What is it that emerges out of life, like a figure out of a rock? Life. Life is what emerges out of life.”

And finally, exhausted Maisie lies down with the baby in the shade—is she hallucinating? Is she bleeding as her husband suggests? Is she in trouble? Is everything okay? We don’t really know, but what we do know that life rolls on, rolls over this family, their joys and trials, their attempts to “exercise the kindness muscle,” as they move through the maze of the orchard and navigate the twists and turns of the wonderous, difficult, confusing environment we share.

Perhaps In the Orchard doesn’t fully rise to the standard of Joyce of Woolf, but it comes closer than anything I’ve read since then, and nowhere have I read a more cogent and satisfying description of life with small children.

Meryl Natchez is the author, most recently, of the poetry collection Catwalk.

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