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» The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Passion and Obsession By Susan Orlean Published by Ballantine Books $14.95 softback

BOOK BIZ — This story of orchids and Florida captivates

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is, quite simply, a wonder. You’ll find yourself fascinated (perhaps unexpectedly) by all the twists and turns and divergent paths Orlean takes you on. Inspired by a small newspaper article she read about the arrest of four men (three Seminoles, one white) for the theft of rare orchids from a protected Florida swamp, in Orlean’s capable hands, this story becomes so much more than that.

As a work of non-fiction, everything she writes here is necessarily true, of course. But she somehow manages to tap into a seemingly unending well of larger-than-life real people and colorful stories. Even she herself suggests she couldn’t create fictional characters as interesting and complex as these. You might never look at an orchid, or Florida for that matter, the same way again.

From the history of Florida’s many outrageous land-grabbing real estate schemes to an in-depth look at the orchid’s evolutionary adaptations (which captured the mind of no less than Charles Darwin himself) to an exploration of how orchids became coveted assets in Victorian England, this book brings history and botany to life. Orlean bounces from topic to topic, making me want to know more about things I frankly never knew I was interested in.

And I can’t overlook John Laroche, the white man who was arrested and charged with the Native Americans for stealing orchids. His story, and perhaps even more importantly, Orlean’s reactions to and feelings about him, tie the story together. We are constantly brought back to Laroche, and his search for the elusive ghost orchid, as a sort of lodestone throughout the entire book.

We also meet many other orchid growers and collectors in south Florida. These are people so passionate about these temperamental flowers that Orlean actively avoids owning orchids herself. She gives away every orchid given to her. She only wants to write about their passion, not share it.

Writer Charlie Kaufman adapted The Orchid Thief for a movie, sort of. Called Adaptation and starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, it’s about, well, Charlie Kaufman struggling to turn the book into a movie. I’ve seen it a few times and already liked it for its self-referential funny weirdness, but now having read this book, I have a whole new appreciation for it.

Regardless if you’ve seen Adaptation or not, The Orchid Thief is a book that just about anyone would enjoy. Orlean’s writing is so beautiful and full of life, and she’s as much a part of the story as the other characters.

— LouAnn Lofton, mbj@msbusiness.com

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4 comments

  1. Orchid people HATE this book because it’s riddled with errors — everything from the number of orchid species to the way hybrids are created She also got a lot of things about Florida wrong (where feral hogs come from, to pick just one example). In addition, the Fakahatchee Strand biologists she mentioned in the book says some scenes she describes did not in fact occur. As a biologist he never carries a gun, contrary to what she wrote in her book. You might try a more accurate book that’s endorsed by orchid folks, such as “Orchid Fever” or “The Scent of Scandal.”

    • Fortunately, orchid lovers do enjoy D. K. Christi’s fiction novel, Ghost Orchid, inspired by the 2007 surprise blooming of the “Super Ghost” at Blair Audubon Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in Naples, Florida. Susan Orlean never actually saw a ghost orchid during the writing of her book. D. K. Christi was obsessed with the Super Ghost from the day it bloomed on her 2007 July birthday, visiting it daily during blooming season for three years in a row and often thereafter. The story is one of relationships that reach resolution under the “power” of the super ghost’s aura – spritual? paranormal? or coincidental? – for the reader to decide. National Public Radio reviews praised Ghost Orchid for the beauty of the Everglades that shines through on every page and the ghost orchid, the heart and soul of the story. Those who read it may get their first introduction to the ethereal and soothing beauty of natural habitats and their importance to all life.

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