Review by Emily Webber
Jessica Jopp’s novel, From the Longing Orchard, is an intimate portrayal of a woman coming of age during the 60’s and 70’s. As the novel opens, Sonya lives in the suburbs of New York with her sister and mother, immersed in her art and rarely leaving her house. From this confined space, the novel bursts with deeply imagined characters. Going back and forth from Sonya’s childhood to the present. Sonya’s memories reveal her family history, her connection to the natural world and her art, and her developing relationship with another woman. Jopp’s writing about the natural world is meditative and immersive—you’ll live within the pages of this book with characters who are never flattened into stereotypes but are truly alive. From the Longing Orchard is a magically told and moving story of longing and discovery.
At thirteen, Sonya suddenly develops an extreme fear of cats, which increasingly causes her to avoid leaving her house. Throughout this time, she is preoccupied with what happened to a troubled boy, Andy, from her childhood, and she navigates the dissolution of her parent’s marriage and her own developing queer sexuality. While Sonya’s family is progressive, loving, and supportive, the larger climate at this time, when even divorce was taboo, would be very isolating and frightening to someone in Sonya’s situation. Even early on, Sonya experiences that fear of being different:
“That’s right. I think you and Lois are wonderful as you are.” Her mother put her arms around her, rocked her. Sonya closed her eyes to feel it better. “They think it’s weird that I like art class.” Marie gathered her daughter’s thick brown hair and loosely braided it. “Sonya, you have to be you first. Otherwise how will you know who you are? You like art class? So, you like art class. Don’t worry.” The dense knot in Sonya’s stomach began to dissolve.
As they make their way through life, each character shoulders the heaviness the world puts on them. Sonya sees this in her parents, her grandparents, and Andy. The heaviness begins to grow in Sonya too, particularly in regard to her sexuality. Sonya observes the world around her in detail and calls it up often in her memories. This allows her to retain her wonder about life even in the darkest moments. It keeps her tethered to the world and pushes her to fight to stay true to herself. Sonya’s grandfather is a steadying force and an example of the natural world’s healing. Jopp’s writing blossoms in her descriptions of the world around us.
“You know when I feel sad, I think about all that water, lots of it.” “What water?” “Lakes and rivers, ponds, or sometimes a larger body of water.” “But you don’t live near any large body of water.” She knew that New Hampshire had a sliver of Atlantic coast. Their parents had taken her and Lois to see the ocean a few times, extending the road trip with a circuitous return route. She knew that it was far enough away she couldn’t smell the salt from Mercy Hill. “It’s all up here,” he said, tapping his head. “It’s all in the loft. I’ve got tremendous sweeps of it.” “You just think about it?” She tried to imagine a map of just New Hampshire’s streams and rivers. He nodded. “I think and think about it.” She thought of water imprints, veined aquamarine, pressed in his memory like the leaves she had collected and labeled in her science class, made permanent by two sheets of wax paper and the seal an iron gave them. “And then you feel better?” “Yes, I do.” He observed.
Like Sonya, who continues to retreat inward throughout most of the novel, the book is written from a very interior perspective, sometimes jumping from memory to memory in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. How Jopp brings in the incident with the boy from Sonya’s childhood is both chilling and powerful. Sonya’s memories of the boy and the chapters about him are worked so surprisingly into the story that you sometimes almost miss it if you aren’t paying close attention. It creates the feeling that this boy and what happened to him haunts Sonya constantly. Sometimes, the chapters shift perspective and show Andy or his mother or father; they are some of the most powerfully quiet and tense scenes I have read. You witness the damage done when trying to control another person’s life and are left to wonder why it matters so much who people love.
As much as this is Sonya’s story and a strong, compelling narrative from her perspective, it is not just the story of Sonya, but of her parents and parenting, of her grandparents and handling trauma, of what fear can do to a person and how little control we have, at times, over ourselves and how we process things. How we ask for forgiveness from others and where we find comfort.
The earth felt wide and smelled warm to her, and outside she experienced its dimensions, its width and breadth, depth, not as confinement but as what to live among. She reflected on what it would be like to have to give them up, to live in fear. Was that what her grandmother had, or was it depression? But Sonya did know fear, though not to be paralyzed by it. She could be out in any day, go anywhere, hold the day in her mouth with a hum. The underside of wet stones, of leaves deep on the floor of the woods, the shadowed movement of fish her grandfather saw pulling themselves back home—it was all within reach. The scent of towers she and Lois had conjured, of the mossy streambanks they wandered, of book seams, some village in that book—it was all here, in her. Even so, that night she turned to the outline of her sister on the cot next to hers and listened awhile, drowsing, to her steady sleep-breathing. How could he leave a brother, how, when someone wounded could find balm in a string of pale beads.
There’s a section of the book where the family comes together to be with Sonya’s grandmother, who struggles to deal with past trauma and mistakes. Not only is it beautifully told, but it is enlightening in its portrayal of people setting boundaries and yet still showing patience, support, and kindness—unconditional love given regardless of flaws and accepting imperfect forgiveness.
Finally Lois said to their grandmother, “You know, she’s been pretty good to us. When she locks us in the garage for a few days, she has a valid reason—like we didn’t clean our room or we let our grades slip.”
Marie’s shocked expression was brief, because as soon as Glenda let out a relieved crackling laugh, she laughed too.
Sonya hit her sister on the arm. “What about the thumb screws? Want to tell her about those?”
“And the hair shirts?” Lois added. “Actually, we call them hair tank tops.” “Yeah, we could tell her about those, too.”
Much to the surprise of all of them, Glenda was still laughing. So unusual was the sound, especially of late, that her husband came to the door of the room, opened it and peered in at them. “Hey girls.”
“Come join us, Herbert.” He walked over and stood beside the bed, held his wife’s hand. “It sounds like you are tickled up,” he said.
She looked earnestly at him. “I’m still old and mean. A couple of laughs aren’t going to change that.”
“I’ll take them anyway,” he said.
Preceding this novel, Jessica Jopp published a poetry collection, The History of a Voice, with Headmistress Press, and From the Longing Orchard has that poet’s voice. You’ll be fully immersed in her world and language. These are characters you will want to be with and learn from. Jopp shows through memory how we grieve and the burdens we place on others, how we let go of fear, and how we are each worthy of love and respect.
Emily Webber’s writing has appeared in The Writer magazine, the Ploughshares Blog, Five Points, Maudlin House, Brevity, and Slip Lip Magazine. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press. Find more at emilyannwebber.com and on Twitter: @emilyannwebber.