I’m writing this post after just finishing this book less than ten minutes ago. It was such a thought-provoking read that I feel like I both digested it as I read it but also have no idea what kind of literary journey I just took. The Orchid Thief was Susan Orlean’s debut novel after being a staff writer at The New Yorker for many years. I actually read her second novel, The Library Book, over the summer. The Library Book was such a poetic tribute to the power that books and the literary arts hold over ordinary lives that I limited myself to a certain page count per day in order to stretch out the reading experience and savor the words. I enjoyed The Library Book so much that I couldn’t help but search out Orlean’s first book in an effort to repeat the experience. While I was disappointed that The Orchid Thief didn’t evoke such an emotional response for me, it was a great book. Orlean spends the novel both detailing her experience with the exotic plant world of Florida while recounting the history of exotic plant collection. She interweaves the story of John Laroche, the orchid thief of the title, with a larger reflection on the existence of Florida as both a part of the United States that stands truly alone.
Some of the description in this book didn’t resonate with me very much but I’m also not an attentive plant lover. Orlean’s writing was powerful in this first novel and I think that she really perfected her prose in The Library Book. I’m also from California and was able to find resonance in her words about California and its history more than I was able to relate to the story of a state that I have never visited. Orlean does meditate on a lot of the elements of modernity in this novel and I would say that for that alone, The Orchid Thief deserves a read. Orleans passes no strong judgement upon the people that populate her book which I think is part of the fun. Orlean’s presence as a neutral narrator makes the reader think harder about their own biases in life. Definitely a book for an adults, The Orchid Thief is a unique reflection on life and plants and everything in between.