Gardening. True Crime. Nonfiction. HTML: The Orchid Thief is the true story of John Laroche, an obsessed Florida plant dealer willing to go to any lengths to steal rare and protected wild orchids and clone them, all for a tidy profit. But the morality of Laroche's actions do not drive the narrative of Orlean's strange, compelling, and hilarious book. She is much more interested in the spectacle this unusual man creates through his actions, including one of the oddest legal controversies in recent memory, which brought together environmentalists, Native American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. She follows Laroche deep into Florida's swamps, tapping into not only the psyche of the deeply opinionated Laroche but also the wider subculture of orchid collectors, including aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Orlean portrays the weirdness of it all in wonderful detail, but, ultimately, the book is primarily about passion itself and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it..
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I listened to the audio version read by Jennifer Jay Myers while painting my bathroom. Primarily the story is about a man obsessed with obtaining and propagating a rare orchid found in the Florida Everglades, but the reader learns about the history of manic collectors and hunters and how orchid nurseries grew in popularity in the U.S. One also learns a lot about the fascinating orchid: why the incredible range in colors and shapes, where they are found, and most of all, how people become passionate orchid growers.
Some of the information about hunters and collectors reminded me of a book I read about the Lord God Bird, one of many species of birds hunted to extinction or the brink thereof for their feathers used to ornament women's hats. This was another example of man's using nature for his own benefit without considering the impact on nature. Naturists will enjoy this book.
The beginning of this book comes off as some strange ode to Florida; this really struck a false note with me because I went to Florida a lot as a kid (my grandparents lived there) and I do not like Florida...I will never like Florida.
After the diatribe about how awesome and unique Florida is the book goes into a ton of detail on orchids. This was kind of cool but it was just too much for me. The way Olean writes is almost overly descriptive; she has a habit of spending a long time describing things and making long lists of items which came off as a bit text-bookish and was just a huge info dump.
Overall this book just wasn’t my cup of tea. It was boring and a bit preachy about the wonders of Florida. I would recommend reading the first chapter of the book before buying and seeing how you like it; the first chapter is pretty representative of the book.
I preface this review with these facts because there’s going to be a strongly sentimental bias to my feelings about this book. I can’t possibly
So believe me when I say that, other than my pedantic nitpicking over calling Florida’s ecosystem a jungle, Susan Orlean nailed both the state and the crazy orchid loving people in it. Including herself in the story creates a nice foil for the eccentric mix of people that make up the less civilised places of Florida (which is pretty much all the places). My sister would be a better judge of how close she came to the personalities of the players; I recognised the names but given my relationship with orchids (YOU MAY CALL ME DEATH), I was only ever a spectator, and a pretty disinterested as only a teenager can be, but Orlean captures the atmosphere, the close-knit community and the cattiness of the orchid world perfectly.
According to the publisher and book flap, this is a book about John Larouche (whom I’d never heard of until I read this), but really, it’s about all orchidists and their often unfathomable passion for a plant that is, objectively, ugly. Until it flowers, and then it’s spectacular. Specifically, this book is about the Ghost Orchid, a Florida native known only to live in a very few spots in the Fakahatchee Strand. A plant that consists of nothing but roots and a flower, no leaves. While Larouche is absent for much of the book, the Ghost Orchid is always present. This is a good thing because I doubt anybody could take an awful lot of a character like Larouche.
I could meander on in this review for quite some time, but I wouldn’t really be talking about the book, so I’ll just say: it was good; it was enjoyable and well written and enlightening. If eccentric characters a la Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil appeal to you along with the swampy, humid, atmosphere of Florida, you might find something to like in this read.
On a slightly related side note, my father passed away on this date in 2004, so the read felt especially timely for me. What made it even more poignant though, was what I found when doing a bit of googling about the Ghost Orchid; it seems Larouche was not entirely correct when he said nobody could breed the Ghost Orchid (breed, not clone, which is what Larouche was trying to do): it turns out my daddy could, and did. I found this except on an orchid site out of Delray Beach called HBI Orchids:
The Ghost Orchid, Polyrrhiza lindeni (old school name). We at HBI have been working on growing ghost orchids from seed for over 28 years ever since we first bought 3 ghost orchids flasks from Larry Evans. Larry did curating and flasking work for the Marie Selby Botanical Gardens in Sarasota. Selby once green housed the top premier specimens of this Florida species. The ghost orchid parents used by Larry originated in the Fakahatchee Strand and were first bred by him many years before ghost orchids were designated as an endangered species. Fakahatchee ghost orchids with their longer frog-legs/tendrils and ghostly all-white flower surpass the truncated short-tendril inferior class lindeni green-flower ghost orchid pretenders named Dendrophylax sallei from Cuba and Dominican Republic in any competition and will always be the more valuable type of this vanishing species to own.
I clearly remember my dad doing Selby’s lab/flask work; at that time they couldn’t do it themselves without contamination (orchid seed has to be handled in a completely sterile environment, sprinkled across growing medium in sealed, sterile flasks; otherwise just about any microbe floating in the air will overtake and kill the seedlings before they can start), so they’d asked him to do it in his lab. But I never knew they were ghost orchids or how special they are. So tip of the hat to Orlean for leading me back to my father in more ways than I bargained on.
I never knew orchids were such a big deal. I learned so much when reading this book. Not enough to make me want to
It's a fascinating study (expanded, I think, from an earlier New Yorker article) of the subculture of orchid fanciers in Florida, focusing on one man in particular (the Thief in the title).
My apologies; I am here to review books, not authors.
My boyfriend and I were wandering through Borders when he recommended The Orchid Thief because I am an orchid lover. It is about a man named John Laroche who tries to poach the rare and endangered Ghost Orchid from the Fakahatchee swamp in Florida to clone in a Seminole nursery. The novel also includes stories and histories of orchid hunters, collectors, and major orchid companies. Orlean does a good job making these facts interesting, especially since her writing is vivid in its descriptions of both settings and characters, and her voice is consistent and usually witty. However, her writing is not exactly captivating, but has more of a fairy-tale reporter quality. She also has a habit of repeating character descriptions. For example, she points out how breeders have different ideas on breeding orchids: either mutating the orchids to look more intriguing or breeding them to closer resemble their ancestors. She mentions this observation two or three times, somewhat reminiscent of an old man who constantly repeats the same story to the same person.
If there is one word to describe the book, it is “interesting.” Orlean makes the stories interesting, but that is all the book has going for it- definitely not a page turner. In the Orchid Thief, the author concludes that hardcore hobbyists immerse themselves in their interests to give order to a cluttered and constantly changing universe. Like certain phenotypes, however, Orlean’s theme is not very pronounced throughout the novel. Though the subjects are interesting, the novel itself is extremely overrated and is not anything special.
So it's not a book of fiction.
This was originally an article in the New Yorker (McPhee again), and it shows, as she pads the book with side trips into history, jungles, flower shows, mud, alligators and, above all, the orchids themselves. For a book all about them, filled with detailed descriptions of them, not to have pictures of them is a staggering tease. And she repeats herself one too many times in very specific ways (didn't she already talk about why that guy hated the other guy?), which makes it feel a bit pasted together.
So why did I finish the book? I was looking for the punchline, the button on the story about the orchid thief himself. And she does provide same - it's just not the payoff I had hoped for.
But Laroche's is only one part of the story. Over the course of the book, Orlean looks at the biology of the orchids (noting that there are over 100,000 species), goes in the history of orchid hunting and the mania of collectors when the plants were first discovered, meets various collectors at functions and explores their history as collectors, points out orchid grower rivalries, shares the history of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve and describes it in lovingly detail, goes into the history of the Seminole Indians in the area and their local heroes, among other little tidbits of facts and history and science, all while weaving in her own experiences in Florida and her obsession with discovering why people are so obsessed with these flowers with Laroche cropping up every once in a while like an odd, lanky swamp bird. Thus, the book is an unusual mixture of crime story, character sketch, historical account, biology lesson, and travel memoir, one that is far from objective and deeply fascinating to read.
For those who may not be aware, The Orchid Thief is the basis for the 2002 movie Adaptation, staring Nicolas cage. And reading it now, I can certainly see why Charlie Kaufman had such trouble adapting the book into a movie. There is no way to do a straight adaptation, as the kind of meandering quality wouldn't work on the screen and the ending in the book (while a perfect declaration of the incomplete quality of everyday life just going on) wouldn't work for a movie format. In a sense, Kaufman's adaptation of the book is perfect, because just as Susan Orlean took a story meant to be about Laroche and his adventures and controversies and she interjected herself into the story, making it as much about her own experience as about Laroche, Kaufman took her book and made a movie script that was just as much about himself (or an idea of himself) as it was about the story — which is kind of a cool parallel.