The Lemon Orchard
By Luanne Rice
Publisher: Penguin Group Viking/
Pamela Dorman Books
Release Date: July 2, 2013
The life of Julia Hughes, an adjunct professor of cultural anthropology at Yale University, essentially stopped five years ago when her sixteen-year-old daughter, Jenny, was killed in an automobile accident in which Julia’s husband also died. Although Julia grieves for her husband Peter, they were on the verge of divorce when he was killed. It is the loss of her only child that has left her emotionally paralyzed, unable to return to her life, isolating herself in the east coast home with her memories and Bonnie, a twelve-year-old blue merle Border Collie, the only living thing that connects Julia with Jenny.
Julia accepts the invitation of her uncle John Riley, a professor of Mexican Studies at UCLA, and his actress wife Graciela to house-sit for them at their home in Malibu, California, while they are in Ireland. Julia had visited Casa Riley often, but this is her first visit in five years. Except for an occasional dinner with Lion Cushing, an aging actor who is almost family to Julia, her visit to California changes little about her life except the location—until Julia learns the story of Roberto Rodriguez.
Roberto is the manager of the Rileys’ lemon orchard. A Mexican who entered the country illegally, Roberto also lost a daughter five years ago. He and his six-year-old daughter left his hometown in Mexico to find a better life in the United States. In the desert where so many Mexicans die as they attempt an illegal crossing, Roberto left Rosa in the shade of a rock while he looked for the ride that had been arranged for them. But he was captured by the Border Patrol, and by the time he persuaded someone to look for Rosa, there was no trace of her. For five years, Roberto has worked hard, haunted by his memories of Rosa and her angel doll, Maria, and wondering if his child is dead or if she has somehow been saved.
As Julia and Roberto share the stories of their losses, a bond forms that develops into a rare friendship and then into a love affair. Julia uses her skills as an anthropologist to generate a plan to find out what happened to Rosa. A former professor connects her to an anthropologist who works for an organization dedicated to reuniting families of Latino immigrants whether it is a literal reunion or, as is more commonly the case, provides them with information and remains to bury. She contacts Jack Leary, a retired Border Patrol agent who gave orders for the search for Rosa, and he is persuaded to join in the hunt. As Julia’s quest to restore Rosa to her father moves closer to resolution, so does the improbable relationship between Julia and Roberto.
The Lemon Orchard resonates with the themes of love and loss and family dynamics that have characterized her work since her debut novel Angels All Over Town in 1985. The Southern California setting from the wealthy Hollywood world of Lion Cushing to the beauty of the lemon orchard to the Latino neighborhood of East LA grounds this story that moves between a love story between two people whose shared loss is greater than their considerable differences of ethnicity, class, and education and a harrowing look at the all too real problems of illegal immigration.
The characters are engaging, the plot is compelling, and the emotional stakes are high. The use of multiple points of view allows the reader to believe in a relationship that otherwise would demand credulity, and the use of flashbacks keeps the devastating losses Julia and Roberto suffered as fresh for the reader as they remain for the characters. Including Jack Leary’s perspective allows Rice to add balance and keep a human face on the Border Patrol. It also allows her to include fascinating details such as the existence of the Shadow Wolves, Native American trackers who use traditional skills of their people in contemporary situations. I confess to being confused sometimes by the purpose of Lion Cushing’s point of view.
Readers who have enjoyed other novels by Rice will find this one a welcome addition. The novel plays to her strengths and centers on a social issue rarely addresses in popular fiction. Romance readers who may be unfamiliar with Rice’s books should take note that The Lemon Orchard is not a romance. The romantic element is strong and central, but there is no conventional HEA. If Rice were a romance author, readers could count on a sequel, but although Rice has written several connected books, including the six-book Hubbard’s Point series, most of her more than thirty novels are standalones. While my favorite Rice novels continue to be three from 2000-2001—Follow the Stars Home, Dream Country, and Summer Light, I have no hesitancy in recommending The Lemon Orchard to readers who enjoy women’s fiction with a strong romantic element but don’t require a neatly beribboned HEA.
Do you require an HEA for everything you read? Should every love story end happily?