CBRV Review #41: The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean

So this is a book I’ve been wanting to read for probably 10 or so years–my mom read it a while back, around when it was first published, and loved it (and got to have lunch with Susan Orlean, because her friend won some contest or something, and she said that Orlean is awesome in person). I also love Adaptation and have seen it a million times, although I did know before reading it that the book and the movie are not really alike at all. Like, AT ALL, so if you’re planning on reading this with the expectation that it’s just like the movie…you will be extremely disappointed. No crazy twin rivalries and freaky love affairs with rednecks and people getting eaten by alligators here!

You may know Susan Orlean as a frequent contributor to The New Yorker–she’s basically one of the masters of long-form narrative journalism, and she rocks. This book reads like a really long version of a New Yorker article, which makes sense, because it started out as a short piece for the magazine and was expanded after it got a lot of buzz. The book is about orchids and the people that love them, specifically John LaRoche, a Floridian with an orchid obsession who was arrested along with several Seminole Indians for poaching rare orchids in the Everglades. Orlean follows the trial, but also delves into the concept of passion and obsession, exploring the bizarre lives of the people across the state and across the world who are captivated by the flowers.

It’s definitely a really interesting book, even though I have no prior knowledge of/interest in orchids. Orlean does a really good job of capturing the passion that dedicated orchidists have and describing it in a way that feels tangible–I found myself totally engaged in her descriptions of the different breeds of orchids, of the drama and scandals surrounding cross-breeding and orchid ownership, of the lengths people will go to (and all that they lose) in their pursuit of these gorgeous yet strange flowers. LaRoche is a really interesting character and helps to ground the narrative, as she uses him as a centerpiece and a recurring symbol of the orchid obsession. He’s quirky and entertaining without ever devolving into a caricature, which I appreciated. The story also really benefits from Orlean’s outsider perspective–she is respectful of this world and these people who are so different from her, inserting skepticism and humor where needed but never judging.

This is a really good book–it’s so much more than a book about flowers. Highly recommended to fans of well-written literary journalism.

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