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June 1999

The Orchid Thief

A book review of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief *** by Susan Orlean Random House, 1998 Munich Found book reviewers may be vulnerable to the charge that our focus is exclusively fiction. The hoped to redress this imbalance with Susan Orlean's vibrant new work of journalistic intrepidity, The Orchid Thief. However, this book is so gnarled and streaked with the bizarre, that it verges instead on science fiction. Disclaimers aside, The Orchid Thief is an enthralling excursion into the tangled underbrush of botanical collectors and their consuming passions. Orleans pokes around shady characters and dubious dealings to uncover the nature of floral obsessions in particular and monomania in general. Piqued by an article about botanical thievery in Florida, Orlean set out to investigate for herself. Her most interesting discovery was neither plant nor crime, but John Laroche, a man one could--inadequately--describe as outlandish. He pops up sporadically throughout the book, like a raving jack-in-the-box, to shower the reader with his loopy logic and limitless zeal. A former amateur orchid expert and the accused orchid thief of the title, Laroche served as Orlean's conduit from the sane periphery of garden enthusiasts to the fevered core of "orchidelerium." "Sometimes in Florida you feel that you are on the edge of the world, and that the rest of the world sloshes in as regularly as the tide and produces strange and peerless things," Orlean writes. Much of the same could be said of this book, with its accounts of the hothouse rivalries among growers and collectors who think nothing of plunking down a month's salary for a pale coil of blossomless roots, and of the author's own pursuit of the elusive ghost orchid. This species, so rare as to be almost legendary, is said to favor the Fakahatchee swamp, a malarial morass owned by the Florida Seminole tribe. Orlean's desolate journeys through this place send her scuttling after a bewildering array of narrative offshoots-mostly tangential but always entertaining. The sad, briared past of the Seminoles and the garish, neon life of modern Miami, a brief history of Victorian botanical exploration, the contemporary quixotic pursuits of earls and English professors-all stem from a fascination with a flower of infinite variety and enigmatic appeal. Orlean presents her story in clean, casual prose-the literary equivalent of a pair of well-pressed khakis-which suits her subject matter. The somewhat ramshackle structure of the story lends itself to her colloquial asides and musings. Girlish squeamishness and a few too many personal details (why should we care about her morning jogs on the golf course?) are the only detractions from this otherwise engaging book.

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