Families – or at least fictional families – have secrets. As close as siblings may be – as close as husbands and wives or cousins – no manner of closeness affects secrets. In fact, it seems to be an unwritten (ha ha) literary law that family members must keep secrets from each other.
Such is the basic premise in The Taste of Apple Seeds. Set in a bucolic German town, Iris’s parents and aunts gather for the funeral of her grandmother, who was plagued by dementia for the last couple of decades of her life. To Iris’s surprise – as well as to that of her mother and aunts – grandma Bertha left Iris the family home. Not that it’s out for any Architectural Digest awards; the floorboards creak, the wood is rotting, and spiders clutter everywhere.
But it’s her grandmother’s home, and Iris feels obligated to it.
As she pores through the home, ferreting out her aunts’ fancy dresses and her grandfather’s book of poetry, Iris attempts to figure out her next step. Will she keep the home? Will she sell it? Give it to her parents?
Helping her out are memories. She recalls her summers spent there with her older cousin, Rosmarie, who was sophisticated, a bit more worldly, and even a wee tad sinister. Notice that word “was,” because Rosmarie is dead. The circumstances surrounding her death are not revealed till the end of the book, and even then, Iris has more questions than answers. That is to be expected, though, when someone dies suddenly at age sixteen.
Iris also recalls her grandmother and aunts, although not too much about her own mother. Iris either was privy to her family’s deepest thoughts or manages to conjure them up; either way, Iris knows an awful lot. She admits at one point that she might have imagined the details surrounding one of her aunts, but for the most part, her knowledge of people’s thoughts, feelings, and even their sex lives is detailed, to say the least.
Hagena tells her story slowly and atmospherically. You can smell the apple trees, feel the minnows nipping at you in the lack water, and hear the creaky stairs. Iris tells the story during the summer, and you can feel the heat. That is one of Hagena’s strengths; she makes you feel as if you’re there.
She also creates characters who compel you to keep reading. Aunts Inga and Harriet are fascinating. In fact, on many occasions, I wished that Inga was narrating, or Harriet. Or even Bertha. It isn’t that Iris is unlikable, though. She’s fine. But she isn’t nearly as interesting as her aunts and grandmother.
The real weakness here is the plot: there doesn’t seem to be much of one. This is more of a weaving together of stories than a novel with a focus of its own. It took about a hundred or so pages for me to get into this book, and even then, I would find myself skimming some of Iris’s mundane activities (picking apples, scything grass) to get to the stories about Bertha, the aunts, and Max, a young attorney she knows from her childhood.
I hesitate to complain about a book that has beautiful, lyrical parts, but that’s what this is: parts. It lacks a cohesive wholeness. Hagena needs you to like Iris a LOT in order to keep turning pages, and, like I said, Iris is one of the least interesting characters here. She is a librarian, so she is accustomed to surrounding herself with other people’s stories, which perhaps accounts for her inability to make herself sound interesting.
I kept wishing for more. More of Inga, more of Harriet and Bertha, even more of Rosmarie. But more than anything, I wished for more plot.