Book Review: The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli

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The Forgetting Tree – Tatjana Soli (St. Martin’s Press, 2012)

This book was so frustrating. The writing is beautiful; evocative descriptions of place full of smell and texture, the people seem visible and nuanced in their appearance on the page, and there is so much history simmering beneath the page. But the actions of the characters are so frustrating I found myself racing through the novel, desperate to get it over with.

After I read Soli’s novel The Lotus Eaters (read my review here) I eagerly added The Forgetting Tree to my To Read list. But where the protagonist of The Lotus Eaters made decisions I disagreed with, they still felt honest and understandable. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case in The Forgetting Tree.

The story as a whole spans many years but the main action takes place in just one summer. At the beginning of the book we meet Claire. Claire is the daughter of Hungarian refugees. When she falls in love with Forster it also means falling in love with his family’s land and their history as farmers in California. Claire resists at first but soon comes to find herself deeply rooted, a home and a history that she’s never known before. She is passionate about the farm and her family’s place there. Claire and Forster work hard but they are happy. Their lives are shattered however when their youngest child, their son Josh, is murdered.

Years later, Claire still lives in the same house, maintaining and holding on to the farm against all odds. She and Forster are divorced and while Forster still holds a half-share of the farm he wants very little to do with it. Neither do their daughters who have both moved far away. Everyone wants Claire to agree to sell the farm but Claire refuses. When Claire is diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer she hires Minna, a young woman with a mysterious background, to move in and care for her through the summer.

Claire loves the farm more than anything. More than her husband, perhaps more than her remaining children. This is well established and is foundational to what we know of Claire’s character. Yet as the novel progresses, her actions continually run against this. Under Minna’s care and influence, Claire literally allows the house and farm to rot and ruin around her.

Most unrealistic though was that everyone around Claire allows this. While Claire perhaps has the excuse of dealing with cancer and chemotherapy, what is the excuse of her daughters? At least one is clearly suspicious of Minna and yet never bothers to do more than cursory checks on her ailing mother. Forster, who still owns half the farm and lives nearby, does nothing, even when he sees firsthand what’s happening to the farm. Even if he didn’t care about Claire (which we’re told he does) why wouldn’t he be more protective of his financial investment? Or Octavio, the long-time foreman of the farm who sees Minna’s strange behaviour up close and keeps silent. We’re supposed to believe this characters care for Claire and yet she is almost entirely abandoned to the whims of a woman that none of them particularly like or trust.

Minna herself is a character with a lot of potential. I never found her quite as charming as Claire does but she is an interesting person to observe. She is passionate and mysterious and her stories change subtly as she tells them. Toward the end of the book we delve into Minna’s past and her true history. While this section was interesting, it felt like an entirely different character. The Minna of this final section didn’t quite seem to fit with the Minna we’d witnessed so far. And just what caused such a change that she could  treat Claire the way she did wasn’t entirely clear to me.

The setting and descriptions of the novel are strong. It is full of taste and smell and texture. I only wish the characters and their motivations had been as clear.

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