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The Orchid Thief

This month the Narrative Nonfiction Book Club met to discuss Susan Orlean’s 1998 New York Times best seller, The Orchid Thief. Orlean, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written articles for several magazines including Rolling Stone, Vogue and Esquire, and books for both adults and children, including My Kind of Place (adult) and Lazy Little Loafers (children).

The Orchid Thief is the story of John Laroche, a man Orlean describes as a “single-minded lunatic,” who organized the theft of several endangered orchids from a Florida swamp, breaking both Florida criminal laws and state park laws.  Orlean hung out with Laroche for two years to research the book and discovered that he is an intelligent man with a skewed moral compass. 

Almost everyone in the group loved it.  One topic that kept popping up in the discussion was the meaning of passion.  A member wondered, “Is a passion a positive form of addiction?” Orlean states in her narrative that she was drawn to the subject because she saw that Laroche had a passion for orchids.  She never experienced passion and wanted to learn what it was like to have such a strong emotion.  We generally agreed that she learned and that she successfully imparted her new knowledge in her writing.

Another member made a beautiful observation.  She said she thought the orchid was a metaphor for the development of Florida.  (Orlean spends a lot of time explaining the history of development in Florida from its wild days to the present.) Our group member thought that Florida, in its virgin state, was lush and elegant with wild beauty, but then was exploited, just like the orchid.  We all were silent at that revelation, then nodded thoughtfully.

Okay, I’ll admit it.  I was the lone voice of dissent.  I loved the writing, but didn’t like the book as a whole because there were three large sections that really didn’t have anything to do with the orchid theft, like the development of Florida.  Others agreed, but they were not as put off by these long tangents as I was.  I was not teased, cowed or harassed for bucking the trend!  On the contrary, everyone wanted to know why.  A group that has differing opinions makes for an interesting discussion, so we encourage everyone who has read a book for a library discussion group to come and share your thoughts, whether you liked it or not.  Readers are friendly folk who like to exchange observations and opinions. 

I hope you’ll come join us when you can.  The next meeting will be on Friday, June 3rd at 10am when we will discuss The Gardner Heist by Ulrich Boser.  This book “documents the unsolved theft of 12 masterpieces from the Isabella Steward Gardner Museum in Boston, tracing the research of the late art detective Harold Smith, while recounting the author’s own forays into the art underworld.  I’m looking forward to it.  We’ll move from stealing flowers to stealing art.  I hope you can steal the time and come to the next Narrative Nonfiction Book Group meeting!  Come pick up a copy of the book at the reference desk.

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