Title: The Orange Grove
Author: Kate Murdoch
“The rain came down in sheets outside the window as Henriette and Solange sat together on the bed. The storm had begun as dusk fell, and Henriette felt that the weather was in tune with her emotions. Letitia, with a despairing glance over her shoulder, had taken Amalia to her rooms, and Solange hiccuped as she cried.”
The Orange Grove is a book, set in Blois, in 1705, which follows the people and dramas of the château of Duc Hugo d’Amboise. The duc’s wife, Duchesse Charlotte, simmers with jealousy over the new mistress, Letitia and the beginning of the story sees her start a plot to get rid of her. With five mistresses, unexpected pregnancies, a tarot reader, and even a murder plot, the lives these people lead are anything but boring…
This is a very character-driven book. While learning all the trials and tribulations of their lives and dramas that they made for each other every day, the story reminded me somewhat of George Eliot’s Middlemarch in that it’s dramatic, but also so insignificant in terms of the bigger picture. Not that it diminishes its entertainment value, but as characters, they were so superficial in their concerns and priorities, which I assume was the author’s intention to emphasise the absurdity of the kind of lives they live.
I do think the story lacked a little bit of grounding in the time. As it’s set in the 18th century, I would have liked to see more details which cemented it in that time, however, in contrast, I did appreciate that there were years at the beginning of some chapters so I knew when the story had moved in time. Also, the book begins in medias res and as a reader there’s not much introduction to anything, and while I can see that this added to the fast-paced nature of the plot, it also did make it a little hard to keep up.
It took me a little while to get used to all the characters, and I definitely referred back to the blurb a couple of times to make sure I’d understood the relationship between all of them. In particular though, I grew a liking to Letita and Henriette, but even the characters who were unlikable, I found myself liking just because their conniving minds made the story interesting. I would have liked to see a little more feminist qualities from some of the characters, as I think it would have added a touch of the modern-day and reliability to the plot. One other note I had, is while I appreciate when authors don’t sugar-coat things, I do think the random sex scenes in this book seemed a bit unnecessary. For me, they didn’t add much and just stuck out a bit like sore thumbs compared with the rest of the narrative.
It’s a small detail, but I really enjoyed how the narrative kept coming back to the orange grove in the grounds of the house. As it’s the title, I loved that the author used it as an anchor and paid homage to it throughout. As the plot was mainly driven by the drama of the characters, I loved that this inanimate object became the subtle centrepiece of the story.
Overall this book was interesting, but I wouldn’t read it if you’re looking for something which is firmly grounded in the 18th century. However, I thought Murdoch did a fantastic job of creating intriguing and plausible characters and the drama of their lives was certainly one which was unpredictable and interesting to read, plus the inflated importance of the characters and their supercilious attitudes meant they were likeable no matter if they were good people or not.