Wednesday, March 07, 2007

"Orchid" Comes from the Greek Word for Testicles

John Laroche is a tall guy, skinny as a stick, pale-eyed, slouch-shouldered, and sharply handsome, in spite of the fact he is missing all his front teeth. He has the posture of al dente spaghetti and the nervous intensity of someone who plays a lot of video games. […] Laroche strikes many people as eccentric. The Seminoles, for instance, have two nicknames for him: Troublemaker and Crazy White Man.

~ The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean


“Anne, this is certainly your night for looking handsome. But I don't like orchids on you. No; it isn't jealousy. Orchids don't seem to BELONG to you. They're too exotic—too tropical—too insolent. Don't put them in your hair, anyway.”

“Well, I won't. I admit I'm not fond of orchids myself. I don't think they're related to me. Roy doesn't often send them—he knows I like flowers I can live with. Orchids are only things you can visit with.”

~ Anne of the Island, Lucy Maud Montgomery

Despite appearances, Phil always seems to know what she’s talking about.

Anyway, so apparently we have a lot of orchids blooming in the world. No one knows exactly how many, but estimates range somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 species. And everyday there are more, because collectors crossbreed them like crazy, creating funky mutant orchids. They can look like dogs or rocket ships, and can smell like anything from chocolate to peach ice cream. But mostly, they are the ultimate unattainable passion for those who obsess over possessing them – because you can never, ever collect them all.

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is that elusive book that inspired Charlie Kaufmann’s Adaptation. Adaptation is one of my favorite movies, and I was eager to take all that geeky love and shower it down upon Orlean’s original work. However, there was a big problem with this – Orlean doesn’t come even close to possessing Kaufmann’s unique and whacky weirdness. Inevitably, I was going to be disappointed.

I won’t deny that The Orchid Thief has its moments. The tales about historical orchid hunters are fascinating, particularly when the individual dies gruesomely in a steamy tropical jungle. And John Laroche, as the eponymous "orchid thief," comes across as something more than man. He’s mythic, a character who inspires admiration, fright, and revulsion in those he meets.

But Orlean inexplicably abandons Laroche and orchid hunting history for long stretches of the book to explore the current Florida orchid industry. And this is DULL. Nurseries don’t have the mysterious ambience of the Fakahatchee Strand, and their owners don’t have Laroche’s ability to mesmerize. As a reader, I felt she had enticed me out to the swamp in her dingy pickup truck with the promise of some glittering dream, only to dump me in the stinky mire with the alligators and speed away, tires squealing – which also leaves me vulnerable to disgruntled patent examiners/wedding guests prowling the swamp looking to commit bloody chainsaw murder. And that’s just rude.

Also, Orlean's personality can be wince-inducing (I don't see her as Meryl Streep at all). She stays in her parents’ Florida condominium, and spends much time ruminating on her wardrobe. You might be wondering, what does this have to do with orchids? It’s a simple answer, really – absolutely nothing. Why she thought I’d be interested in that crap, I don’t know. I could happily see all those pages burned. It would be a much better book.

So read The Orchid Thief for three things – John Laroche, swamps, and death (in swamps). Feel free to skim everything else. I did.


posted by Elizabeth at 9:57 PM


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