The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s tale of an amazing obsession. Determined to clone an endangered flower—the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii—a deeply eccentric and oddly attractive man named John Laroche leads Orlean on an unforgettable tour of America’s strange flower-selling subculture, through Florida’s swamps and beyond, along with the Seminoles who help him and the forces of justice who fight him. In the end, Orlean—and the reader—will have more respect for underdog determination and a powerful new definition of passion.
I remember when The Orchid Thief came out in 1998, it caused a real buzz. It was a New York Times bestseller, a Barnes and Noble Discover book, a Borders New Voices selection, and an honoree in the American Library Association book-of-the-year selection. It also eventually inspired a movie called Adaption, starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, which must have been a weird and wonderful feeling for the author. It is also credited with beginning – or at least propelling into wide popularity – the genre of narrative non-fiction, in which memoir, biography, travel writing and/or literary journalism is spun together into an engaging and fascinating read.
I love narrative non-fiction, particularly when it has to do with nature, but it is only now that I managed to move The Orchid Thief to the top of my reading pile, perhaps because I am writing a novel about an obsession with Chinese roses.
The Orchid Thief is the story of a man named John Laroche who is determined to clone an endangered flower – the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii – but is caught stealing one from a swamp in South Florida, along with three Seminole Indians who claim they are the rightful owners because the swamp once belonged to their tribe. John Laroche is highly intelligent and unsettlingly odd. He leads Susan Orlean into a two-year exploration of the world of orchid enthusiasts, and the result is a series of inter-connected essays all focused on some aspect of this delicate and difficult flower.
Susan Orlean’s style is warm, intimate, and humorous. She goes to great lengths to get her stories, trekking deep into the swamps, visiting orchid fairs, and meeting a wide range of funny, eccentric or half-mad characters. Sometimes the essays digress far away from John Laroche and his orchid mania, but they are always interesting and insightful. One of my favourite quotes from the book reads: ‘The world is so huge that people are always getting lost in it. There are too many ideas and things and people, too many directions to go. I was starting to believe that the reason it matters to care passionately about something is that it whittles the world down to a more manageable size. It makes the world seem not huge and empty but full of possibility.’
I too believe it is important to care passionately about something. As the sub-title says, this book is as much about beauty and obsession as it is about the orchid thief, and that makes it a fascinating glimpse into human desire.