Mary-Lou Stephens – The Last of the Apple Blossom

HQ Fiction an imprint of Harlequin Enterprises, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishers, Australia, 2021
Cover design by Catherine Armstrong

The history of the second half of the 20th century provides a backdrop for this novel, set in the south east of Tasmania, specifically the once booming apple growing regions of the Huon Valley, Wattle Grove and Cygnet.

Centre stage it’s the saga of two family dynasties, the Turners and the Pearsons, starting on 7 February, 1967, known now as Black Tuesday, when 110 separate bushfires ravaged southern Tasmania.

Barbie spoke to Mary-Lou Stephens about The Last of the Apple Blossom

At the height of the blaze, Catherine Turner, a teacher in Hobart, makes her way home to her family orchard in Wattle Grove to find a family tragedy and much of the farm burnt.  She wants to leave her teaching post to help the family on the farm, having dreams of running the orchard when her father retires. But her father’s conservatism and opposition puts paid to this and she agrees to return to teaching to support the struggling orchard with her wages.

Her lifelong friend Annie is the wife of neighbouring orchardist Dave Pearson. Annie too has family issues with her wealthy parents having disowned her when she became pregnant to Dave, whom they considered unsuitable as a husband. Annie and Dave are also harbouring a secret related to a whole other family drama.

Meanwhile in the midst of the struggles of orchardists to recover from the devastation of fire, changes to the world trade situation when England joins the Common Market mean that the bottom drops out of the apple business and many are being paid to uproot their trees.

The complexities of human and family relationships are explored with depth and sensitivity in this novel. As suits the 60s and 70s era of the bulk of this story, the push and pull of the vast social changes of the sixties and seventies affect the lives of the rich cast of characters the author has built for us.

Women’s rights in the workplace and at home, attitudes to pre-marital sex and divorce, to inheritance and financial independence are all shifting, but this conservative rural domain is certainly not on board.

Appropriately, anti-Vietnam War protests get a nod too in the character of wild boy Tim, a dalliance for Catherine when her true love, musician turned orchard worker Mark Davis, seems to have moved out of reach.

Love stories of various kinds play a big part in the plot, be it the relationships of parents with children, siblings, friends, spouses or lovers. The unravelling of truth and lie through the generations finally brings us to a better place for all of Mary-Lou Stephens’ book people and a satisfying one for the reader.

Also fittingly for the period, music plays a prominent role in the story-telling. Those who grew up through this time will have fond and firm memories of the music of the day and how it reflected not only their own lives but also important social movements for change. This music strand is carried not merely by Mark Davis, ex-pop sensation, who has escaped the frenzy of the big music industry to work on the Pearson farm, but in the generation to follow.

Similarly, we see changes in the nature of Tasmania’s tourist and agricultural industries in the new generation of artisanal spirit and craft cider producers – played out in the characters of the young, present day Pearsons.

This is a thoroughly well written tale, not insubstantial at 438 pages, but one which is so engaging that the pages fly. We are invested in the welfare of the main cast and fascinated by the unfolding history of this picturesque part of Australia, known to so many of us merely as tourists. The author‘s strong evocation of place and sensitive rendition of people with their strengths and their foibles makes this book such an enjoyable read.

And for me, perhaps a trivial side-note amongst so much else that resonated in this story of the times, the mention of Gravenstein apples induced such a strong sensory response – I love this crisp, tart apple  and it’s very difficult to buy them any more on the Mainland. Another reason to hope for passage to Tasmania again soon!

Thank you to Harlequin/HarperCollins for my review copy and to Mary-Lou Stephens for such a generous and delightful conversation.