The Tree Doctor: A Novel

Image of The Tree Doctor: A Novel
Release Date: 
March 19, 2024
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by: 

“Well-written with glorious descriptions, The Tree Doctor is a highly recommended tour de force.”

Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s latest oeuvre, The Tree Doctor, wonderfully captures the loneliness human beings felt during the Covid pandemic, and the efforts some undertook to escape the isolation.

The narrator, a Japanese American woman in midlife, has returned from Hong Kong where she has moved with her family because of her husband’s work, to Carmel, California, to take care of her ailing mother. With borders closed and flights cancelled, she is alone in her childhood home, since the mother is now in an old-age facility, and, as in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past), she revels in the nostalgia of life remembered. Particularly important in triggering her memories is her mother’s now neglected garden, full of plants, bushes, and trees, that starting with the ailing fuchsias, she undertakes to nurture back to health.

Visiting the local plant nursery, she encounters The Tree Doctor: “He had on boots and white socks and his legs were tan. He had a bit of a belly, but his legs looked perfect. Men so rarely had good legs in shorts, but everything that she could see—the thighs, the glossy knees, the chiseled calves—looked kneaded and baked like a chewy pretzel.”

The first contact develops into a relationship, as he comes out to her house to assess and work on the garden, particularly a half-gone cherry tree, the “Einstein” tree. Our protagonist learns from him about plants and trees, and along the way, as The Tree Doctor becomes more of a regular visitor to her home and they are attracted to each other, also about sex.

The Tree Doctor is not only a master with flora but also in seducing lonely women and providing them with satisfying loving. Ms. Mutsuki Mockett poigmantly captures her rapture in several instances: “Everywhere she touched him and he touched her, there was only skin and a little bit of hair. It felt glorious. It felt like melting. Skin was the most exquisite substance in the world . . . She was passing through her skin into his.”

Our narrator nevertheless feels guilty about leaving her faraway husband and daughter for such a lengthy period but is obsessed with returning her mother’s garden back to health as well as, at the same time, the delicious awakening she feels in her own body. An instructor of Japanese literature, she nevertheless continues to teach Lady Murasaki’s 11th century novel, The Tale of Genji, remotely to her students back in Hong Kong, drawing parallels from it to her own experience in her pandemic-occasioned isolation.

The bliss though is only temporary, lasting while she and The Tree Doctor work to bring the garden back to life, and it is definitively ended by a raging fire—much like the one that destroyed Paradise in northern California—that consumes many acres and endangers the nursery and comes close to her home. She almost perishes in this wildfire as The Tree Doctor enlists her help to save some of the nursery’s stock.

Finally, when there is a lull in the pandemic, she is able to reunite with her family—but on her terms, a more confident woman, back in Carmel at her childhood home.

This is a novel with many layers: it crosses cultures—Japanese and Californian; it draws interesting parallels between flora and human experience; it explores the ravages of climate change; and it revels in the pleasures that good sex can bring even at a later age. Well-written with glorious descriptions, The Tree Doctor is a highly recommended tour de force.