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'The Tree Doctor' chronicles one woman's response to a series of life-changing crises

Graywolf Press

At the beginning of Marie Mutsuki Mockett's latest novel, The Tree Doctor, the unnamed narrator considers her mother's garden, which has fallen into some disrepair. She is particularly concerned about a series of particular flowers: "Many plants in the garden seemed to be faltering, but the fuchsias, which she had loved as a child and which supplied food for the hummingbirds, who would now have less to eat, were one wrong thing too many."

Her attempt to save the fuchsias leads her to a whirlwind relationship that confirms to her what she already, in the back of her mind, knows: Her life as a wife and mother has caused her to neglect herself, and she needs to save herself even more urgently than she needs to rescue her mother's flowers. The Tree Doctor is an excellent novel, one that beautifully chronicles one woman's response to a series of life-changing crises.

The narrator of The Tree Doctor has come to her hometown of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, from Hong Kong, where she has been living with her husband and two daughters, working as a literature teacher at a private university. She has returned to move her mother — chronically ill throughout most of her adulthood, and now newly diagnosed with dementia — to a care facility.

The trip wasn't supposed to be long-term, but a new viral pandemic, which has shut down non-essential air travel, has thrown a wrench in her plans. She is sheltering at her mother's house, teaching her students The Tale of Genji remotely, and spending a lot of time in her mother's elaborate garden, the state of which worries her. Besides the fuchsias, she is particularly concerned with an ailing tree she has dubbed Einstein "because of the way its branches stood atop the silver trunk, like the stray wisps of the brilliant physicist's hair."

She calls a nursery for help, and meets the titular tree doctor, a man named Dean who she is instantly intrigued by. He offers to visit her house to inspect the ailing flowers and trees and, after she gives him a slice of pound cake, kisses her in the garden, a gesture that "went beyond a thank-you for the cake and into the realm of exploration. She was now a territory to be explored."

The two begin an affair, which the narrator does her best to navigate; she hasn't had sex with her emotionally unavailable husband in six years. The sexlessness of her marriage isn't the only symptom of the relationship's decay — her husband is a somewhat boorish workaholic whose conversations with his wife are limited to ones about whatever he has read on Twitter that day. Dean, by contrast, asks the narrator questions and listens to her answers. When Dean asks her if she feels guilty about their affair, she's ambivalent: "She had been curious about sex, and then they had had sex. She supposed she felt guilty, or might eventually, but she also felt certain that to say she felt guilty at this moment might mean there would be no more sex, and that was not an outcome she wanted."

The novel ends where it has to, with no false notes and nothing approaching melodrama. It bears no real similarities to The Bridges of Madison County, where the male lover is presented as a kind of savior — the narrator doesn't need to be saved, and even if she did, Dean wouldn't be the one to do it. That's one of the surprises of the novel: While Dean does possess a laconic, rugged masculinity, he is deeply flawed, declining to tell the narrator his last name or give much information about his past or the club of men to which he belongs. He also has an unendearing childishness to him, given to bouts of flakiness.

The narrator's awakening comes from herself, not from Dean, and certainly not from her husband. She has come to realize that her roles as a wife and a mother have left her in a kind of chokehold: "She was full of feeling and she wanted it to extend into areas of life beyond simply caring for others. She had been able to suppress this great emotion much of the time, but now, with the virus swaddling the globe and confining her here in the garden, her own desires had overtaken her capacity for self-suppression."

Mockett's prose is beautiful, and she handles the book's heavy themes of illness and isolation perfectly, occasionally leavening them with humor. (In one conversation, her older daughter alerts the narrator that her other child has developed a worrisome predilection for "Barbie torture" YouTube videos.) This is a wonderful novel, wise and sensitive, and a stunning reflection on how we reinvent ourselves when we're left with no other choice.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.