Review: The Overstory

Reading the Man Booker longlist this year has been more rewarding than I could have imagined (I’m almost finished– two left), even though I thought the shortlist was surprisingly underwhelming. The last book from the shortlist that I read this October was Richard Powers’s The Overstory. I picked this one up shortly after the winner announcement, with fairly low expectations but a lot of curiosity.

theoverstoryAbout the book: A diverse array of characters experience life-changing events relating to trees. One man is saved by a tree when he falls out of the sky, but one boy is badly injured when he falls from another. For a few characters, trees are family heirlooms or traditions; for others, trees are neglected until a bad stroke leaves little else of life available. Over their lifetimes, these characters’ lives intersect, joining or clashing with each other. But across each journey, the characters come to realize that humans are dangerous for trees and that something valuable is being lost in the clear-cutting of ancient forests and farming of quick-growing replacements in the name of progress. These characters learn that trees have voices and instincts that most people are unaware of, and there might be a lot more at stake than simple wood.

“Property and mastery: nothing else counts. Earth will be monetized until all trees grow in straight lines, three people own all seven continents, and every large organism is bred to be slaughtered.”

” ‘My life’s work is listening to trees!’ “

I must admit, I often skim over descriptions of nature and landscape when I’m reading novels. The appearance of the setting is one of the least important parts of a story for me, and I have no problem creating a viable image of a story’s world in my own head– the method I prefer for visualizing, unless there are certain aspects to a setting that I would not invent accurately on my own (as in fantasy or futuristic elements). So when I learned that The Overstory is a long novel all about nature and landscape and trees, I thought, “Oh no, I’ll be tempted to skip over half of the information and then I won’t be able to understand or enjoy the rest of it.” It was the only book on the longlist that I didn’t really want to read, but I knew I would not be able to leave one book unread when I’ve gone to the effort to read all twelve others. Also saving my least-anticipated for last seemed like a depressing way to end what has otherwise been a great list. So I picked up The Overstory.

And I was pleasantly surprised. The human characters are present enough from the start that I had no trouble tolerating all of the trees in their lives. And what’s more, the trees themselves are fascinating. Apparently there are a lot of kinds of trees with unique properties or histories that are actually interesting and largely unknown– at least to me. The Chestnut blight. The clearing of trees even in small parks. The difficulties of living 200 feet above ground-level in an ancient Redwood. The possibility that trees communicate. Interesting stuff, and it’s not all about how green the leaves and how strong the trunks and how many the branches. For about two-thirds of the novel, The Overstory really held my attention.

“We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about a few of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree.”

But as the most enthusiastic characters began to drift away from their tree passion, to question it, or to give up hope that they could do anything to help the situation, my interest waned toward the end. If even the staunchest of these tree huggers are losing their nerve, how can they convince me to stay invested?

I also felt that the resolution was a bit unsatisfactory. Each of the story’s threads do come to some end, but I still had so many questions. The final chapters for each of the characters came as a surprise and left me wondering why there wasn’t more. More importantly, those final chapters upset some of my earlier assumptions, leaving me wondering whether the point of the novel is to raise awareness that we’re going to have a shortage of trees if we keep going at the rate we are,  or move readers toward activism in saving trees, or even just to suggest that humans can do what they will to the world but the world will bounce back and outlast us all.

“She sees it in one great glimpse of flashing gold: trees and humans, at war over the land and water and atmosphere. And she can hear, louder than the quaking leaves, which side will loose by winning.”

There were also a lot of romances (all hetero as well, which was kind of disappointing) that counteracted some of the tree commentary. There were several times I wondered whether this character or that character was truly acting for the trees, or for their partner. Advocating for trees because you love a person does not convey quite the same message as characters advocating out of appreciation for the trees themselves. I didn’t need all of the characters to tie together so neatly that they all needed to be paired off with one another, and found their romances rather unnecessary and frustrating in general.

“You’re worth more to me than all the forests this outfit can slaughter.”

But even though I was left uncertain and somewhat unsatisfied with the ending, I can’t deny that I learned a lot while reading this book and that it made me look at the natural world in a new light. Perhaps most surprisingly, I was never bored. The Overstory is a long book with a high risk for tedium, and I don’t doubt that there will be readers who simply can’t stand all the tree talk. But Powers is an intelligent writer who doesn’t get lost in the scope of such a vast topic, and I think his place on the shortlist was well-deserved.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. For most of the book, I was blown away by how much I cared about the trees and their human advocates/acquaintances, but the ending wasn’t strong enough to maintain that momentum. I am glad that I read it, and for a 500 page book about trees it was a faster and more engrossing read than I expected. If it had come together a little more definitively at the end, this might have been a surprising favorite for me from the longlist. But alas.

More Man Booker reviews in order of descending favoritism: Milkman, Everything Under, The Water Cure, From a Low and Quiet Sea, The Mars Room, The Long Take, Warlight, Washington Black, Snap. I’ll also have a review of Sabrina coming up next week.

Have you read any books from the shortlist? Which was your favorite?

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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7 thoughts on “Review: The Overstory”

  1. I felt so similarly about this book. I was dreading it and then at first pleasantly surprised, and then ultimately felt kind of like ‘what’s the point?’ I totally agree that the (annoyingly hetero) relationships all detracted from the narrative; I found it so unrealistic the way all of the characters paired off so easily. I wanted more of a human interest angle from this book only because I really do not like nature writing, but the human interest that was there was just… not very interesting. But I’d definitely be open to reading more from Powers at some point, I was so impressed by his prose.

    Liked by 1 person

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