“There was so much mystery in every nook and cranny and curve of life,” Minot writes, and this spirit of curiosity drives Maisie’s narrative. In flashbacks to soccer practice and gymnastics class, we hear her chatting with other moms about ear infections, sleep training, co-sleeping, career decisions and the staggering cost of child care. The stupidest question, one woman argues, is “Can you have it all?”
Maisie is an observer, someone who “was never very good with words,” who prefers “touch and contact.” As such, the book is wonderfully attuned to the body and its sensations: “Maisie feels a dull ache, something as tiny as a taste bud but as huge as a taste, that courses through her chest at the sight of the baby eyes, the rounded baby cheek.”
“In the Orchard” is warmer and sunnier than most motherhood novels I’ve read in recent years, taking a gentler and more firmly realist approach than Szilvia Molnar’s “The Nursery” or Rachel Yoder’s “Nightbitch,” which examine similar themes. Though financial anxiety provides one of the book’s main sources of tension, our ability to truly experience Maisie’s desperation is undercut by the book’s languid pace. Descriptions of this anxiety can feel both heavy-handed and intangible: “But money, she thinks again, her stomach filling with shaky dread, money, money, money. The shadows of the leaves are suddenly shadows of bundles of bills, mocking her in their playful, pretty light.” I also wondered what would happen if Maisie were allowed to linger in her anger or other messier feelings. But not every novel about motherhood has to rage. Maybe we need the space Minot creates for enchantment, beauty and the “surreal magnificence” of having a baby.
Readers who crave plot may struggle, but Minot’s focus on Maisie’s interiority reads as its own bold choice. Here is a mother’s rich and nuanced inner life, here is an author granting recognition denied by society.
One of the ironies of reading “In the Orchard” was realizing how little I remembered from the first two weeks of my daughter’s life; the book awakened memories I didn’t know I had. To me, Minot’s central concern is the fleetingness of time, the need to pay attention and stay amazed, while also extending grace to ourselves. She writes of Maisie: “The special, close attention that she is learning to pay toward her children is actually toward her own heart, and her own universe. She is learning that the closer she gets to their small smells, their little humor and mischief and verve, the closer she is getting to an unfound mystery, hitting it from time to time like a vein of gold, a trickle-thin branch of a mother lode, vibrant and dazzling in dark rock.”