The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean. I came to this having read and loved The Library Book (2018), Orlean's investigation of the 1986 LA Central Library fire. I loved the way the book combined so many fascinating threads, from the fire itself, an investigation of the possible arsonist, Harry Peak, the history of the building, biographies of librarians past (all fabulously eccentric) and finally Orlean's own connection with books, formed during trips with her mother to her local library as a child. I loved it – a total gem of a book – and so was a little wary of reading this one. Would it be as good? But I needn't have worried, and actually, I think I might have liked The Orchid Thief even more. Books, you see, aren't intrinsically in themselves the most interesting of objects. Orchids, now, there's a plant!
'Orchids are considered the most highly evolved flowering plants on earth. They are unusual in form, uncommonly beautiful in colour, often powerfully fragrant, intricate in structure and different from any other family of plants. Orchids have diverse, unflowerlike looks. One species looks just like a German shepherd dog with its tongue sticking out. One species looks like an onion. One looks like an octopus. One looks like a human nose. One looks like the kind of fancy shoes that a king might wear. One looks like Mickey Mouse. One looks like a monkey. One looks dead. ...There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies' handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples and drunken old men. The genus Dracula is blackish-red and looks like a vampire bat.'
Orlean befriends a man called John Laroche, arrested along with three Indian tribesmen who had stolen more than two-hundred rare orchids from a Florida swamp called the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve. Laroche becomes the figure around which the book is anchored, and he fits in perfectly as an embodiment of the shady world of orchid collecting and dealing. My favourite chapter in the book dealt with Victorian orchid hunters, who underwent enormous and comical (although not to them) levels of hardship in order to bring back specimens. 'The English plant hunter Joseph Hooker spent two years trekking through the Himalayas outfitted in nothing more protective than his spectacles and a tartan shooting jacket. He had no mountaineering equipment at all, although the wife of a friend gave him some woolly stockings and a little antiglare sunshade she made for him out of one of her veils. One his climbs Hooker had biscuits and tea and fine brandy, carried a solid-oak travelling desk and brass-bound ditty boxes, and slept with a copy of Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle under his pillow. He rarely had a good night's sleep because the yaks he used as pack animals were insomniacs and so inquisitive they would stick their heads into Hooker's tent and snort on him until he woke up.’
I loved the way this book made me appreciate this extraordinary plant in a new way, and it satisfied my lockdown reading interest in gardening and growing things nicely. It taught me a lot about Florida and about human nature (people get obsessed by orchids, obsessed!). Orlean managed to resist the tempation to purchase any orchids herself during the course of her writing and research. I, however, had no such will power and now have a beautiful one that sits on my desk, nodding at me as I type. Everyone tells me I must watch the film Adaptation, which I will.