Review: The Orange Grove by Kate Murdoch, by Shelley Carter

Title: The Orange Grove
Author: Kate Murdoch
Publisher: Regal House Publishing
Genre: historical fiction

The Orange Grove follows an extensive cast of characters within an affluent French chateau in the 1700s. When the duc takes a new mistress, Letitia, and brings her to live in the chateau, tensions flare within the household. Fellow mistress Henriette is thrust into the firing line of jealous wife Charlotte, and must try to prove her loyalty within the royal court. Charlotte attempts to not only freeze out Henriette from the inner circle, but also sabotage Letitia at every possible opportunity.

She enlists the help of the other mistresses to gain intel on the two women, uncovering juicy secrets that could throw them out of the chateau and onto the streets of Blois. Coupled with the arrival of charming tarot reader Romain, the combination of lust and jealousy does not bode well for the mistresses on Charlotte’s radar.

What I love about Kate Murdoch’s writing style is her ability to vividly set the scene, which is a difficult task when considering how ornate and luxurious a place Versailles is. The descriptions are luscious and poetic, enveloping the reader in the setting using all five senses. I really enjoyed reading the world-building within The Orange Grove, and the tension between characters was palpable.

At first, the story is a bit of a slow burn. Murdoch takes her time setting up relationships between characters, introducing them all to the reader and gradually revealing juicy bits of information that you know will cause drama later on. This did slow down my reading a little, and I did feel as though I was overwhelmed with the size of the cast of characters and their relative importance within the story. I did struggle with remembering the names of each character, and it wasn’t until about halfway that I had a grasp of who everyone was. I’m not sure if that was just my inexperience reading a sprawling historical fiction such as this one, but it did impact my reading.

At the halfway mark, I was hooked. The sheer audacity of Duchesse Charlotte had me angry yet amused, determined to find out what she was going to inflict on Henriette and Leticia next. There were a few times I audibly gasped, shocked by her manipulative behaviour. Think Mean Girls, but starring characters like Marie Antoinette.

One of the downfalls of this novel was the dialogue. Murdoch’s writing style for dialogue is quite distinct (it was the same as her debut, The Stone Circle), and while it reads like historical fiction dialogue it can feel quite clunky at times. There is a fine line between dialogue that reads as proper and privileged, and stilted and disingenuous. Unfortunately, this book teetered between the two, especially when it came to the dialogue from the children characters. I did, however, really enjoy the characterisation of Amalia, and her tone of voice came through in a way that really illustrated her mental health struggles and her relationship with her mother. In fact, she was my favourite character and I looked forward to reading more about her background.

Overall, Murdoch’s sophomore novel was a strong historical fiction piece that focused on a time period and setting I haven’t read too much about. I found it to be a titillating glimpse into the French elite, complete with the cattiness and jealousy of a modern drama. While there were some instances where Charlotte’s behaviour could be justified, I found her a distinctly hateable character, and I loved every minute of it.

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