Book Review: Kate Murdoch’s The Orange Grove

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Reviewed by Angela Wauchop

“‘That is not true. I care about you, Céline. I care about the fact that my wife prostitutes herself for money. When I walk in the streets, people whisper behind their hands. In the tavern, the men call me a cuckold. How do you think I feel, as a man, to have lost the respect of my neighbors?’”

Kate Murdoch’s new novel, The Orange Grove, is the award-winning author’s latest work of exquisite historical fiction. Set mostly in Blois, France in the year 1705, the book presents its readers with a host of intriguing characters, names and places early in the story. The book is a journey into the rich world of mistresses, servants, superstition and deceit and is centred in and around the ornate and expansive walls and grounds of the Château d’Amboise.

As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that getting to know the many intriguing characters portrayed throughout the book is going to be a rewarding experience. Many past deceptions and heartbreaks of the Duchesse Charlotte d’Amboise and her husband’s five mistresses unfold throughout the pages. Written in third-person omniscient point of view, the story is opulent in its description, and the author’s words transport the reader with a vivid sense of place and time, like any successful work of historical fiction.

Yet, one of Kate Murdoch’s greatest strengths is not merely her ability to transport the reader seamlessly and instantly to 18thCentury France; Murdoch’s gift is in her ability to portray characters so vividly and effectively that I often found my sympathies torn between the victim and the villain. In The Orange Grove, sometimes victim and villain overlap, switch places, and then switch back again! You know when villains are well-portrayed and exquisitely written—it is when the reader just can’t bring themselves to hate the baddie—well… not completely. Sometimes the victim is so adequately flawed that they might only be a hair’s breadth away from stooping to the level of their depraved arch-nemesis.

Perhaps it is best illustrated when the desperate and mentally unstable Duchesse Charlotte resorts to the planning of an evil “Black Mass” ritual to thwart her husband’s latest young dalliance: “Martine had asked her what she wished to achieve and Charlotte had replied, ‘Harm.’ As for the level of severity, she told herself she wanted her enemy injured. In her heart, the truth sat like a stone—she wanted her dead.”

But most of all, The Orange Grove made me consider how even in the depths of powerlessness and the inevitable end of happiness, there is always a flicker of hope, a path to explore, a solution to consider. There is always a choice, and its consequences.

“Céline shivered, feeling the cards’ message of suffering and loss. […] ‘Do we allow these cards to make our futures, or do we make them ourselves? […] Perhaps someone else might like to hear their own sorry tale?’”