Review of ‘The Orchid Thief’ by Susan Orlean

Orchids. Some people are completely obsessed with collecting and growing these (sometimes) rare and (often) ugly plants. One such collector was John Laroche, who was convicted of stealing protected orchids in Florida. Susan Orlean found him a fascinating character and she followed him around for a couple of years, gaining insights into his behaviour, the collecting mentality and the often shady world of orchid-growing businesses. The result of this is an interesting book which is a mixture of travel writing, true crime, nature writing and memoir.

The way that Orlean creates a sense of place is very impressive. I’ve never been to Florida and knew little about the state before I read this book. Her descriptions of the landscape and particularly the swamps are wonderful and I felt that I was right there. You could describe the book as a portrait of Florida. This is not merely a book about orchids (which, by the way, she has no special love for). It’s about how far people will go to get what they want. It’s about the conflict between state law and tribal traditions. It’s about how things become desirable just because they’re rare or difficult to acquire. The writing has an informal documentary tone which tends not to judge the characters. Despite the orchid theme, I feel that humans are the main focus.

Generally I liked the book a lot. It’s very readable and has plenty of dialogue to bring the tales alive. Throughout, Susan is haunted (pun intended) by the idea of the ghost orchid, a native of Florida which John Laroche is obsessed with. Ghost orchids are rare and he has the idea of growing them for profit, but he can only get the plants to begin with by stealing them from the Fakahatchee Strand, the local nature reserve, with the help of the Seminole tribe. The orchid’s flowering is brief and Susan keeps missing it. Will she ever get to see one in bloom?

The only thing I wasn’t keen on in this book was the repetition of information in a few chapters. I’m sure that the author was just reinforcing her ideas but I prefer not to read the same bit of text (or similarly worded) more than once.

If you enjoyed The Library Book, you might like The Orchid Thief, as it uses the same concept of moving back and forth between a present day criminal case and the history of the location and related topics. You don’t need to be an orchid fan to enjoy this book.

First published in 1998. This edition published in 2000 by Vintage.

12 thoughts on “Review of ‘The Orchid Thief’ by Susan Orlean”

  1. I am actually quite curious about Florida. I don’t know a lot about it and reading about the landscape and nature could be an interesting thing. I am also quite attracted to the idea of reading about true crime.
    Thank you for the review!

    1. Reading this book is just like taking a trip to Florida. I don’t generally read true crime but then this one is orchid theft and not homicide or anything. It’s just a really unusual book.

  2. Great review! I liked this book so much when I read it years ago. I think it was the first nonfiction I’d read that combined so many different elements/genres and I thought it was just fascinating.

    1. Thank you ☺ I hadn’t heard of this book until recently. It’s a really interesting style.

  3. This sounds so interesting. For some reason, I couldn’t stop thinking of Poison Ivy in the Batman universe. And I can totally see how the desire of some people to get things that are hard to get lead them to a criminal lifestyle. Fantastic review! 😀

    1. Thanks for your comment ☺ it’s an unusual book which follows the obsessions of people who feel compelled to collect stuff – it just happens to be orchids as an example. Some people really would do anything to get what they want.

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