A Book About Obsession, “The Orchid Thief” Creates It

(Looking for a captivating beach or poolside read this summer? Try this one!)

Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is, quite simply, a wonder. You’ll find yourself fascinated (perhaps unexpectedly) by all the twists and turns and divergent paths Orlean takes you on. Inspired by a small newspaper article she read about the arrest of four men (three Seminoles, one white) for the theft of rare orchids from a protected Florida swamp, in Orlean’s capable hands, this story becomes so much more than that.


As a work of nonfiction, everything she writes here is necessarily true, of course. But she somehow manages to tap into a seemingly unending well of larger-than-life real people and colorful stories. Even she herself suggests she couldn’t create fictional characters as interesting and complex as these. You might never look at an orchid, or Florida for that matter, the same way again.

From the history of Florida’s many outrageous land-grabbing real estate schemes to an in-depth look at the orchid’s evolutionary adaptations (which captured the mind of no less than Charles Darwin himself) to an exploration of how orchids became coveted assets in Victorian England, this book brings history and botany to life. Orlean bounces from topic to topic, making me want to know more about things I frankly never knew I was interested in.

And I can’t overlook John Laroche, the white man who was arrested and charged with the Native Americans for stealing orchids. His story, and perhaps even more importantly, Orlean’s reactions to and feelings about him, ties it all together. We are constantly brought back to Laroche, and his search for the elusive ghost orchid, as a sort of lodestone throughout the entire book.

We also meet many other orchid growers and collectors in south Florida. These are people so passionate about these temperamental flowers that Orlean actively avoids owning orchids herself. She gives away every orchid given to her. She only wants to write about their passion, not share it.

Writer Charlie Kaufman adapted The Orchid Thief for a movie, sort of. Called Adaptation and starring Meryl Streep as Susan Orlean, it’s about, well, Charlie Kaufman struggling to turn the book into a movie. I’ve seen it a few times and already liked it for its self-referential funny weirdness, but now having read this book, I have a whole new appreciation for it.

Regardless if you’ve seen Adaptation or not, The Orchid Thief is a book that just about anyone would enjoy. Orlean’s writing is so beautiful and full of life, and she’s as much a part of the story as the other characters.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/2015/05/book-biz-this-story-of-orchids-and-florida-captivates/)

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  1. Pingback: Grief and healing in “H Is for Hawk” | Read. Write. Breathe.

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