Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Book Review: The Lemon Orchard

By Miriam Plotinsky

Santa Monica is one of those mythical places to me, a sun-drenched piece of California paradise where beautiful people live and the weather is always sunny and in the mid-seventies. Mind you, I’ve never actually been there. I’ve read plenty of books and seen even more films set in Santa Monica, but until I read The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice, I never saw it as anything other than a place where over-privileged people spent their days lolling around on beaches. However, viewed through the lens of two people who are suffering, Santa Monica acts as a perfect and unexpected backdrop to a story about loss and redemption.

Five years after the sudden death of her teenage daughter, Julia heads to her family’s lemon orchard in Santa Monica to housesit while her uncle and aunt are away. While there, she quickly bonds with the orchard’s overseer, Roberto. They sense one another’s pain almost immediately, and as they get to know one another, Roberto gradually reveals his story. As it turns out, Roberto lost his own daughter, Rosa, while crossing the border from Mexico to the United States. Six years old at the time, Rosa is now presumed dead, and Roberto cannot investigate further, mainly because of his status as an illegal immigrant. Julia’s background in anthropology comes in handy as, with a fierce passion born out of her own grief, she tries to help Roberto get closure about what happened the day Rosa disappeared.

Of course, a romance develops between the two protagonists, and their relationship is a welcome note of lightness in a book that deals with heavy subject matter. Though neither character has unforgettable traits, that works for a story in which the plot drives almost the entire book forward. It is more Rice’s message about border crossings and immigration laws that takes center stage, and Roberto’s experience is one that creates a great deal of interest. We want him to be able to learn what happened, one way or another, with Rosa.

Certain dramatic moments, like a fire threatening the orchard, lend additional suspense to the book that is already hard to put down. Furthermore, Rice tells the story from the perspective of various characters, from the border agent who handled Rosa’s case to Roberto himself. Getting inside the head of each of the characters as the story progresses, particularly the highly empathetic Julia’s, makes it even harder not to get invested in the ultimate fate of everyone involved.

The Lemon Orchard takes a highly sensitive and controversial topic and handles it with grace. Rather than make the book seem like a long one-sided diatribe, Rice instead gives life to her story, balancing the various perspectives about immigration laws by focusing on the people who live through the effects of such legislation. With the added, and very enviable, setting of Santa Monica adding a lushness to the book that another place would not be able to provide, The Lemon Orchard is a mesmerizing balance of romantic escapism and hard reality.

Thanks to Viking Press for the book in exchange for an honest review.

More by Luanne Rice:


Connie said...

I’ve heard some truly great things about this novel and appreciate you sharing your review.

Unknown said...

This sounds like a very balanced book, with a nice touch of romance to balance out the grittier realities of the rest of the characters' lives. Definitely one I would like to read.