'Orchard' -- the warmth of illumination

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Orchard, by Larry Watson. Random House. 256 pages. $24.95.

If there exists a literary equivalent to the artist's play of light on a canvas, then Larry Watson has mastered it.

Author of the best-selling Montana, 1948, Watson deftly uses light to inform his subjects in this story of grief, betrayal and jealousy. Set against the backdrop of the rugged, rural towns of Door County, Wis., in the 1950s, every scene of Orchard is painted with deliberate, vivid strokes of radiance: the soft glow of the moon, the intense whites of a horse's eyes, sun so hot it burns the blue out of a cloudless sky.

The story centers on Ned Weaver, an artist made famous for his paintings of resplendent landscapes. Ned is an archetypal tortured artist. Egomaniacal and enigmatic, he lies about his frequent dalliances to his wife, Harriet, who lacks the courage to leave him. Once his muse, Harriet feels she has become "habit" in his eyes. She knows that behind the closed doors of his cabin in the woods, Ned is painting the subject that inspires him the most: women in the nude.

One of these women is the comely Sonja Skordahl, a Norwegian immigrant married to Henry House, the owner of a local apple orchard. In the wake of a tragic family accident, Henry and Sonja are wrought with grief. Henry's sorrow is so severe that he has grown distant and icy, denying himself any physical contact with his wife.

One afternoon on a trip into town, Sonja is approached by Ned Weaver, who asks her to pose for one of his paintings. Perhaps because she is starving for attention, Sonja accepts Ned's offer. Much to his delight, Ned discovers that in addition to a lack of self-consciousness, Sonja has a talent for being still. When she first posed for him, Ned notes, Sonja "took to motionless eagerly, as if stasis were her natural state and she has been waiting for a reason to return to it."

In his description of Ned's erotic paintings of Sonja, with her square jaw, freckled limbs and downturned eyes, Watson inevitably calls to mind Andrew Wyeth's images of his neighbor Helga Testorf, a collection the Pennsylvania painter completed in total secrecy over a period of 15 years.

Weaving together shards from his character's past with flashes from their future, Watson builds the novel into to a foreseeable, but no less powerful scene in which Henry confronts Ned about the nature of his relationship with Sonja.

There is nothing complex or innovative about Orchard's plot. The ingenuity of the book lies in Watson's ability to render the complexities of his characters without loading his sentences with too much sentiment. Like Ned Weaver, whose paintings "make marvelous ... the ordinariness of life," Watson's sparse words and controlled prose turn a remote town and four lonely characters into a remarkable tale.

Orchard is a sad, insular story -- yet it is nearly impossible to put down. And although its ending is cast in darkness, something about this book will leave you illuminated.

Molly Knight is assistant to the books editor at The Sun, and a regular contributor to the newspaper. She majored in English at the University of Virginia, and earned a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before joining The Sun, she wrote for publications including The Washington Post and The Chicago Sun-Times.

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