by Susan Orlean
Publication Date: January 4, 2000
Publisher: Ballantine Books
A modern classic of personal journalism, The Orchid Thief is Susan Orlean’s wickedly funny, elegant, and captivating 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.
In this new edition, coming fifteen years after its initial publication and twenty years after she first met the “orchid thief,” Orlean revisits this unforgettable world, and the route by which it was brought to the screen in the film Adaptation, in a new retrospective essay.
I’m still laid up, obviously, but feeling much more human, and I was ready for something a little meatier in my reading, while also feeling like I needed a taste of home while wallowing in my bitterness over the fickleness of fate. The Orchid Thief is fitting the bill perfectly. Susan Orlean, with the exception of referring to Florida’s natural state as jungle (it’s not), has nailed the state in both its feral and more civilised forms. The world of orchid collecting is also one I grew up on the fringes of, my father, and then my sister, both orchidists. For my sister it was a fleeting interest, lasting only a decade or so, if memory serves, but for my father it was a lifelong passion and between them they created well over a thousand hybrids that were sent all over the world. Fortunately he was, at heart, sane with a very unmoving moral compass, so none of the family had center-ring seats to the real insanity of the orchid collecting world Orleans is delving into. But there are familiar names and references that I’m thoroughly enjoying so far. Thankfully Larouche isn’t one of them – he’s an odd one.