By: Jeffrey Stepakoff
Rating:Three out of five bookmarks
I would think out of all the five senses, the sense of smell would be the trickiest to properly portray within a novel.
That sense is the center focus of Atlanta author Jeffery Stepakoff's second book, "The Orchard." This story of how a unique apple brings two people together follows his highly acclaimed debut, "Fireworks Over Toccoa."
But does "The Orchard" bear the same appetizing fruit of love and longing that captured readers in Stepakoff's first book, or does it leave us with a bittersweet aftertaste?
Grace Lyndon specializes in gathering and isolating natural fragrances and flavors to be used within commercial products, such as perfumes, skin care, foods and drinks.
She comes across an unusual apple from a local Georgia farm, an apple striking she simply must find out where it came from so she can harness its flavor.
Her persistence leads to her forming a friendship with the orchard's owner, Dylan Jackson, and his 10-year-old daughter Carter. Dylan is still struggling with the loss of his wife a few years ago, and is not sure if he should have feelings for Grace.
As Grace begins to realize there is more between her and Dylan than just the apple project, she must decide if her romance for Dylan will come into bloom, or if love is the one essence of nature she can never truly capture.
I enjoyed how Stepakoff gives the reader a look into the process of how our favorite flavors are recreated and how Grace is so passionate about it.
This is what makes the novel unique, because unfortunately the rest of the novel is all territory that has been explored before: The work-obsessed woman using her job to avoid having relationships; the man afraid to love again because of a previous romantic loss; a supporting cast who wants the protagonists together so they both can find love again (even the daughter Carter, who actually wants Grace to become her new mother as opposed to viewing Grace as a usurper of her father's attention).
The characters are not much developed beyond this, and while the majority of the story focuses on the character relations rather than dramatic action or antagonistic forces, the friendships seem to form all too quickly and without any emotional obstacles.
That is perhaps the biggest difference between "The Orchard" and "Fireworks." In "Fireworks," there was always an air of tension to what was happening: A married woman trying to decide whether or not to leave her soldier husband for her new love, with his Italian heritage stamping him as an outsider, even an enemy, during WWII.
In "Orchard," there is almost no tension in either the romance or the characters' private lives. Both Grace and Dylan are single, surrounded by people urging them to be together and the only thing standing in the way is Dylan's search for a woman he saw in an elevator a year ago that he thinks might be his deceased wife.
One of the impending "problems" that is labored over several times in the story is Dylan is allowing his apple harvest to be prolonged, and a tropical storm is on its way, threatening to destroy his harvest, which could ruin both his finances and Grace's project.
Not only does the storm end up not being an issue, it was almost completely unnecessary to build up this plot point as it has no effect on the rest of the events.
I understand not every novel has to be full of melodrama, and "Orchard" is a reflection on how circumstances often occur in real life, but there were one or two moments when someone suddenly did something wildly out of character, so that something can actually create conflict (and then miraculously resolve it in a few pages).
"Orchard" is a pleasant read, yet it is not as strong a story as "Fireworks," even though its exploration into the world of scents is fun and refreshing.
Alison Reeger Cook is a Gainesville resident whose Off the Shelves book review appears every other week in Sunday Life. Know of a good book to review? E-mail her to tell her about it. Her column appears biweekly and on gainesvilletimes.com/life.