BOOK CLUB: The Orange Grove

By Kate Murdoch
ISBN 978-1-947548-22-0
Review copies courtesy of the author

I found the setting of “The Orange Grove” refreshingly different to many of the novels I’ve read recently. Combined with an interesting background and meticulous historical detail, this is an absorbing novel.

In 18th century France it was normal for a nobleman to have a wife, and one or more mistresses, often resident in the same home. Duc Hugo d’Amboise has a wife and five mistresses, all living together with a degree of amiability. But then the Duc introduces a new mistress, particularly young and beautiful. His wife seethes with jealousy, and tensions too long bottled up begin to erupt.

I found this a slightly slow start, possibly because in those first few pages Murdoch must introduce not only her characters and plot, but also orientate readers to the time and place. This isn’t a big problem; within a couple of dozen pages I was absorbed.

The situation allows Murdoch to examine relationships a little differently to the way she might in a modern setting, but it’s all still recognisable: sexual jealousy, male insensitivity and patriarchal behaviour, older women feeling cast aside for a younger, “mean girl” politics taken to a truly extraordinary extreme…

Henriette is one of the senior mistresses, and she’s not overly bothered by the Duc’s waning interest in her. She’s still comfortably housed, clothed and fed, and so is her daughter by the Duc. She has friends, of a kind, in the other mistresses; and enough freedom and spending money to keep her secrets. Sadly, Henriette was probably the character I felt we knew least, although she was the most intriguing. Murdoch has not drawn her as strongly as the other characters, although her determination to do the right thing, and what it costs her, is in many ways the lynchpin of this novel.

Readers will empathise with many of the characters (although not necessarily with all of their actions). Murdoch has written a novel that examines universal emotions through a historical lens which adds extra interest because of the unfamiliar social and living arrangements. Her characters are strong and the plot believable. It’s a rather classic structure: you won’t be surprised by the outcome, but you likely won’t anticipate the specifics.

This is a relatively short novel, not one of the whacking great doorstops you sometimes find in historical fiction, overloaded with every fact the author came across in their research. Despite the length, Murdoch weaves in quite a lot of historical detail. She clearly knows her background and integrates it into the novel in a subtle and readable fashion.

In fact, “The Orange Grove” is highly readable in all aspects: the writing style, the background, the subject matter, and the characters. I really enjoyed it, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in characters or looking for a novel with a setting not commonly used in fiction – a refreshing difference.

A selection of our Beauty and Lace Club members are reading The Orange Grove by Kate Murdoch. You can read their thoughts in the comments section below, or add your own review.

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