Saturday, September 24, 2016

"The Excellent Lombards," by Jane Hamilton

“The Excellent Lombards” (Grand Central Publishing, 2016), by the excellent writer Jane Hamilton (I have read and liked at least two of her earlier novels) is about an excellent family (the Lombards) and their excellent orchard and excellent apples. The narrator is a young girl, Mary Frances (also called Frances), so we see the situation described, and the story told, through a child’s perspective. We see how living in an apple orchard, as part of a family enterprise, is mostly idyllic, but as with any family, there are undercurrents of stress, competition, misunderstanding, and disappointment. Mary Frances’ closest person is her slightly older brother Michael. She also has wonderful if at times a bit eccentric parents. Her mother is the head librarian at the local small town library; what’s not to love about a mother who memorizes passages from Edith Wharton? There is a fair amount of tension between Frances’ father and her father’s business partner. There are other characters: cousins, somewhat mysterious and eccentric relatives, and a longtime worker who is practically a member of the family. Then there is the gifted and beautiful teacher who lives next door and whom Mary Frances adores. Despite some adventures and some upsets, Frances’ and Michael’s childhood seems like the kind of childhood all children should have: surrounded by loving adults, living on beautiful land, being able to help with the family’s work, but never being overworked, enjoying the pleasures of a small town, and more. I wonder how many children have such a life these days? Or did they ever? Is the author exaggerating? And, I should mention, Mary Frances’ idyllic childhood is sometimes infused with her deep fear that somehow it will all be taken away from her, by money problems, or by distant relatives, or by some other factor. The author herself lives in an apple orchard in Wisconsin, so perhaps she knows the answer to the questions above.
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