From the bestselling author of Montana 1948 comes the explosive story of an artist, his muse, and the staggering price they pay for their chance at immortality.
Sonja Skordahl, a Norwegian immigrant, came to America looking for a new life. Instead, she settled in Door County, Wisconsin, and married Henry House--only to find herself defined by her roles as wife and mother. Destiny lands Sonja in the studio of Ned Weaver, an internationally acclaimed painter. There she becomes more than his model and more than a mere object of desire; she becomes the most inspiring muse Ned has ever known, much to the chagrin of the artist's wife. When both Ned and Henry insist on possessing Sonja, their jealousies threaten to erupt into violence--as she struggles to appease both men without sacrificing her hard-won sense of self.
Showing a deep maturity of thought and craft, Watson (Montana 1948; White Crosses) surpasses himself in his sixth novel, an uncompromising, perfectly calibrated double portrait of two couples in rural Wisconsin in the 1950s. Ned Weaver is a famous artist, Henry House an orchard keeper. Ned, like many creative people, is self-absorbed and cruel to his adoring wife, Harriet, with whom he has two grown daughters. Harriet, ignoring his serial adultery, has long ago accepted that Ned's art is what matters most in the world; she has "rehearsed her role so well that not even she could discern a difference between performance and belief." Henry House and his wife, Sonja, are younger than the Weavers; Henry was raised picking apples, and Sonja came from Norway to Wisconsin when she was 12. As the novel begins, they are grieving the death of their young son, who collapsed mysteriously one summer day just outside Sonja's kitchen window. Invited to pose for Weaver, Sonja accepts, not for the money or because she is attracted to Weaver, though her motives are unclear even to herself. When Henry finds out from his cronies that Sonja has been posing in the nude, he is wild with jealousy and plots revenge. Ned's paintings of Sonja inevitably call to mind Andrew Wyeth's famous Helga series. But whatever the novel's inspiration, it is in no way limited by the constraints of fact. Sentences and chapters unfurl with a sense of inevitability, and the narrative possesses an uncommon integrity. When Ned first paints Sonja nude, he marvels at her beatific poise: "The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art." Watson composes this marvelous novel with the same assurance.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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June 07, 2004
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Excerpt from Orchard by Larry Watson
Henry House stayed out of the orchard's open aisles and instead kept close to the apple trees as he tried to work his way unnoticed down the hill. This meant he could barely rise out of a crouch, ducking under one low gnarly branch after another. The new November snow further complicated matters. It was just enough to cover the few apples that still lay on the ground, and when Henry stepped on one it was likely to burst under his weight, causing him to skid on the slick snow and apple mush underfoot. Each time this happened, apple scent rose up to his nostrils, and in his mind he heard again his father's old reproach: Watch where you walk.
The apple trees gave out well short of the cabin, but the final eighty yards were no easier to negotiate. The scrub trees and brush thickened, the hill steepened sharply, and Henry had to dig in the edges of his boots and descend sideways to keep from hurtling headlong down the slope.
He had taken no more than three steps, however, when he lost what little foothold he had. He wasn't sure if it was another apple he'd stepped on or a pocket of wet leaves, but his foot slid out from under him, and he fell hard on his backside. In the next instant, he was sliding down the hill with the speed of a child on a sled, threatening to slam feetfirst into the very building he had hoped to creep up on.
For all the suddenness of Henry's fall, it did not feel to him, in those first seconds, so much like an accident as a fulfillment--so this is what I've been heading for.
As he bumped and skidded down the hill, he still had the presence of mind to do two things: He held his right arm--the arm that had never healed right--over his head to keep it from hitting a rock or snagging a fallen tree limb. Second, Henry managed to clap his left arm over his mackinaw pocket and keep it closed, thereby preventing the pistol from slipping out into the snow.
With his hands thus positioned, Henry couldn't do much to check his descent or to protect the rest of his body from banging and scraping its way down the slope. And yet with that one arm held aloft, Henry felt a little like a rodeo rider, which meant the earth itself was the bucking horse he had to ride.
Weaver had never known a model with this woman's talent for stillness. And talent was the word for it. For that she did not have to be taught or trained. She did not have to be reminded or cajoled. When told to pose in a particular position, she assumed it immediately and held it without protest. Without protest? Beyond that. She took to motionlessness eagerly, as if stasis were her natural state and she had been waiting for a reason to return to it.
Furthermore, her stillness had a quality as amazing to him now as when she first posed for him, though Weaver was at a loss to put a name to it. It had nothing to do with lethargy or languor. She did not relax into her pose the way some models did, leaving their bodies in order to let their minds wander. Weaver hated that, and he could tell when it happened. Energy and a degree of muscularity left the body. You wanted stillness, but not the repose of a cadaver. Even when she was in a pose--lying back on the bed, for example--that would have allowed her to relax so completely she could fall asleep, she never did. She was still, but she was there.
Perhaps even more remarkable was her lack of self-consciousness about her body. Weaver knew she was not immodest or vain, yet she disrobed in front of him as openly as . . . what was Weaver thinking? As his wife? Harriet had her own art: finding the odd angle or obstruction that permitted her to undress out of his sight. Back when she modeled for him, she often used the screen and stepped out draped in the sheet he provided. But this woman . . . When Weaver first told her she could undress behind the screen, she looked at him as if he were an idiot. "I'm going to be naked before you, yet I should hide myself while I get that way?"
She undressed like his daughters. That was it. She undressed as easily and efficiently as Emma and Betsy had when they were young and he'd supervised their baths. A task lay before them that required they be unclothed, so they quickly attended to the matter. The carpenter picks up his hammer, the artist takes brush in hand. This woman shed her clothes, nakedness her craft and art.