Sunday, 23 July 2006

Review: The Orchid Thief, Susan Orlean (1998)

The first thing that is necessary to say about this book is that it differs in almost every respect from the movie made in 2002 called Adaptation, starring Meryl Streep and Nicholas Cage. I saw this movie at the Dendy Opera Quays, with it’s lovely views of the Harbour Bridge and The Rocks, when I was still living in West Pennant Hills. It was a weekend outing. I enjoyed the movie.

Now, I’ve enjoyed the book, which contains much historical background on southern Florida, orchid collecting (from earliest days in the early eighteenth century) and U.S. laws surrounding plants and animals. It does not contain drama in the way the movie does. In fact, it is difficult to orient yourself in this book. It’s about a hobby, I guess: orchid collecting. The people who collect orchids and their ways are outlined in great detail. The character of John Laroche does indeed have missing front teeth and is built like a coat hanger — as he is in the movie — but there any resemblance between the two versions ends.

Orlean is a journalist and this is a work of non-fiction. It has all the hallmarks of enterprise, research, and hard labour at the word-processor. Laroche in the book is a quixotic person, of strong opinions, great self-regard, and a deep oddness that sets him apart from his fellows — even though many of the orchid-fanciers Orlean meets during her season in Florida are odd. After being pushed out of his position with the Seminole indians, Laroche suddenly gives up orchids, gets rid of his holdings, and dedicates himself to making Internet pages and publishing pornography.

From the first time I’d heard of Laroche, I had been fascinated by how he managed to find the fullness and satisfaction of life in narrow desires—the Ice Age fossils, the turtles, the old mirrors, the orchids. I suppose that is exactly what I was doing in Florida, figuring out how people found order and contentment and a sense of purpose in the universe by fixing their sights on one single thing or one belief or one desire. Now I was also trying to understand how someone could end such intense desire without leaving a trace.

Laroche in the book is like a Pied Piper, leading the journalist into his world and showing her things she’s never seen before. Then, just as suddenly, he’s out of reach again. A Peter Pan of orchids. Even physically, he’s a striking character:

Every time I saw Laroche I was freshly amazed. His tallness, thinness, and paleness seemed always to be growing taller, thinner, and paler. He had the bulk and shape of a coat hanger. Even though he had spent a lot of time in his life walking around the woods he was wispy and unmuscled. The aura of peacefulness and repose was not anywhere around him. Instead he had the composure of a jackrabbit.

1 comment:

kimbofo said...

I read this book several years ago -- and loved it. I have never seen the movie.

You might like to try "Orchid Fever" by Eric Hansen, which reads like a crime thriller with a dose of travelogue thrown in.