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The Ghost Orchid: A medium novelist and a writing retreat with an ill-fated past

The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman

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The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman is is narrated partially by Ellis Brooks, an aspiring writer at an writer's and artist’s retreat named Bosco in upstate New York. She, along with the other three writers, the garden conservationist, and the owner of the estate, each have powerful connections, not only with Bosco, but with a tragic event that happened there nearly a century before-one whose unresolved ghosts will do anything to have their story told, and their spirits released by the woman who keeps them buried below the hill in the garden’s intricate pipes. The other narrator of the story is Corinth Blackwell, a medium who suffered many great tragedies in her life, including a lost lover, Tom Quinn, who she soon finds working as a stenographer for a sensation novelist living with Aurora and Milo Latham, a very wealthy, powerful couple who have called on Corinth to release the spirits of Aurora’s dead children from the garden. As each of the two women’s stories unfold, the parallels in their lives slowly, and grippingly, merge them into a person who holds all the pieces of the story, and even the future of every character, in her hands. A ghost tale for those who love a bit of romance, tragedy, suspense, nature, and even art, The Ghost Orchid is one of Carol Goodman’s most intelligent and riveting novels.

The Ghost Orchid-slide0
Amanda Leitch
Vanilla Chai Cupcakes with Chai Spiced Buttercream by Jenn
Vanilla Chai Cupcakes with Chai Spiced Buttercream by JennBy Jenn at eatcakefordinner.com

Recommendations:

Duma Key by Stephen King is another ghost story in which art plays a large part, and is located in a descriptive, beautiful setting, but in the Florida Keys. A man recovering from a terrible accident goes to an island to paint and find peace, but instead is met with a long-waiting, supernatural force. It at first inspires him to paint the most brilliant surrealist art, until Edgar Freemantle is finally forced to confront and, with the help of a friend, confine an ancient evil.

The Shining is also a classic ghost story by Stephen King, about a man who chooses to take along his wife and young child and become the caretaker of a haunted hotel whose apparitions take advantage of their isolation and his alcohol recovery, in order to add to their ghostly number.

For a very dark suspense story about a serial killer, read Adam by Ted Dekker. It also traverses across time, revealing the gathered fragments of the history of the killer who monthly takes the life of a young woman, pieced together by the FBI agent who is tracking the elusive murdered, and will be faced with supernatural powers he never imagined existed.

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova, is not a ghost tale, but is a suspenseful tale of an artist tortured by the woman who he is compelled to paint, and the ancient connection between them that the man’s psychiatrist pieces together, with the help an ex-wife and an ex-lover, to help the brilliantly mad painter, Robert Oliver, who attacked a painting in the National Gallery of Art.

If you enjoyed the author’s writing style, The Sonnet Lover is similar in that it is both incredibly suspenseful as it unravels personal histories, and it also incorporates much of the arts- from tapestries and marble floors to, plays and, of course, sonnets. Also similar in theme is The Lake of Dead Languages, told from the viewpoint of a college professor returning to her old alma mater, but who is being forced to relive the horrific tragedies of her last college days by an unknown specter who also demands a voice and her story to be told.

The Recipe:
Throughout the book, the scent of the ghost orchid is described as a spicy vanilla mixed with cloves, and the scotch that most of the men, and some of the female writers, drink also has a smoky, spicy taste to it, like peat moss. To create a combination of these flavors and smells, and because the piped icing on top almost looks like a little white orchid, I chose the following recipe:

Vanilla Chai Cupcakes with Chai Spiced Buttercream
by jenn@eatcakefordinner

For the cupcakes:
3 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
2 c. sugar
5 large eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
3 c. all-purpose flour
1 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 c. buttermilk
1/2 batch chai spice mix

Chai Spice Mix:
3 tsp. ground cardamom
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. (scant) ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

Chai Spiced Buttercream:

4 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
pinch of salt
2-3 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 batch chai spice mix
5 c. powdered sugar
milk, only if needed

Combine the chai spice mix ingredients. Reserve half for the cupcakes and half for the frosting; set aside. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Line muffin tins with paper liners and lightly spray with cooking spray. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar until very light and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating after each addition. Scrape down the bowl. Add the vanilla extract and mix well. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and half of the chai spice mix. In 3 parts, alternately add the dry ingredients and buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with dry. Mix until just combined. Fill muffin liners 2/3 full. For regular cupcakes: bake 24-25 minutes, yields around 30-32 cupcakes. For mini cupcakes (recommended): bake 10-11 minutes, using 1 Tablespoon of batter per cupcake will yield around 100 - 104 mini cupcakes. Cool completely before frosting.
In a separate bowl for the frosting, beat butter, salt and vanilla until light and fluffy. Add the chai spice mix and mix until combined. Add the powdered sugar, one cup at a time, beating after each addition. Add milk, only if needed to reach desired consistency. Beat for a minute or two or until light and fluffy. Store in an air-tight container at room temperature.

Discussion Questions:

1. Did you find yourself looking up terms like “giochi di aqua” or “fontanieri”? Do you think that the author really researched well to write this story? Does that make you appreciate the novel even more?

2. The tea cups that they all used for meals were white china with “flow blue.” Corinth observed, “if only all mistakes looked so lovely.” Are there any other mistakes found in art or nature that perhaps make them more beautiful that they would have been if they were more perfect? Do you think David truly felt that way about the overgrown gardens?

3. Aurora describes experiencing extreme grief over the loss of her children, but seeing the statue of Egeria “seeing something so lovely...I felt an easing of my pain.” Has there ever been a statue, painting, piece of art, or place in nature that did the same for you? How do you feel about the power of art to console grief?

4. Corinth likes the appeal of living in one place, instead of moving around a lot, “so that if her soul ever left her body again, it would know where to come back to.” Do you ever metaphorically feel this way? As if pieces of you are left in the places you’ve lived, and sometimes some parts are missing? Can you understand the appeal of staying in one place? What other factors make it so for you?

5. Did you feel any sort of sympathy for Aurora when you discovered the number of miscarriages she’d had? What did you think about her re-using the names of her dead children-is it morbid, desperate, sad? Do you think there are any clinical mental disorders that Aurora might have?

6. Corinth keeps seeing a girl in white, which sometimes turns out to be stones, or the ghost orchid, or nothing at all. Do you believe she is having supernatural experiences? Have you ever had one?

7. Corinth’s mother calls “children who never lived to breathe outside their mothers’ watr'y wombs” “water spirits”. How does this differ from typical definitions of a water spirit? Do you think this is a better definition? Why?

8. When did the events of the past begin to really replay from Corinth’s time to Ellis’s? It even permeates the relationship of Ellis and David to be like Corinth and Tom. Why do you think this happened?

9. When Alice’s heir is unpinned and unveiled to Corinth, did you begin to see a possible relationship between the two, or was it later? Did you at any point try to talk yourself out of the possibility, or did you try to figure out the connection? How did the author do with creating a viable explanation for this?

10. Are the the living’s demands of ghosts more easily satisfied than ghost’s demands of the living? Why do you think Corinth feels this way? Would Ellis agree?

11. Why is there a common stigma that those who take their life, or who have unfinished business on earth, can never be free of this earth? Are there any sources that promote this idea? What do you think about it?

12. Why do the three Latham children come as stone, water, and wood? Is it all Corinth’s attributing these symbols to them, or does Aurora seem to have created the same connection? Are these appropriate symbols, or can you think of better ones? Are these the connection which make it possible for spirits to remain at Bosco for Ellis to find and finish the work of?

13. Tom sells an item to get enough money to help him and Corinth escape. after he does so, he gets what she calls “the money-glitter that she’s seen in men’s eyes before”- why do you think she chose this name? How often do you think she’s come across it? Is this an accurate name for the look? Are there other “glitter” looks that men, or even women, get in their eyes? Why?

14. Daria says that ghosts, like the people who call her office, “want their murderers unmasked, their bones found and buried, and their stories told.” How important is it to people to have their stories, especially tragic ones, told? Why is this?

15. Do you find it twisted logic, or the rationing of an already skewed mind, that Aurora “lost a little of her sanity with each” child, and thought that if she could sicken and save the last ones, “Then it would be as if she’d saved the others”? Does any part of you sympathize with her, after having lost so many? Does this make her a villain, a victim, or a little of both? Why?

16. What about the part Aurora blamed her husband for in their children’s deaths-do you think he was also partially to blame? Could she have felt it was a slap in her own face that he kept sleeping around while she was trying to keep and save his children? Are Aurora and Mr. Oswald truly alike, in that he needed to “blame someone else for what he had done”?

17. Ellis struggles to explain that Aurora’s spirit was trapped in the hellebore root which kept blooming and re-growing each time it was hacked apart by David’s scythe. Why did it seem to her that it would be easier for the others to understand David’s possession by Milo, than the hellebore’s possession by Aurora? Why is it sometimes easier for people to believe in a human’s possession than for a spirit to come as an element such as stone or water?

18. Do you think that, by Ellis, acting as Corinth, telling Tom the truth about his daughter, she actually changed his mind and the personal history of them all? Is such manipulation of the past dangerous? Why could it be? How did Corinth’s revelation actually help of each them?

Bonus Question:
If you have time, read the short story, “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Anderson. What parallels do you see in these two tales, in the characters, and in the events that unfold? Do you think this story could have partially inspired the author?