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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Ballantine Reader's Circle) Paperback – January 4, 2000

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Orchidelirium is the name the Victorians gave to the flower madness that is for botanical collectors the equivalent of gold fever. Wealthy orchid fanatics of that era sent explorers (heavily armed, more to protect themselves against other orchid seekers than against hostile natives or wild animals) to unmapped territories in search of new varieties of Cattleya and Paphiopedilum. As knowledge of the family Orchidaceae grew to encompass the currently more than 60,000 species and over 100,000 hybrids, orchidelirium might have been expected to go the way of Dutch tulip mania. Yet, as journalist Susan Orlean found out, there still exists a vein of orchid madness strong enough to inspire larceny among collectors.

The Orchid Thief centers on south Florida and John Laroche, a quixotic, charismatic schemer once convicted of attempting to take endangered orchids from the Fakahatchee swamp, a state preserve. Laroche, a horticultural consultant who once ran an extensive nursery for the Seminole tribe, dreams of making a fortune for the Seminoles and himself by cloning the rare ghost orchid Polyrrhiza lindenii. Laroche sums up the obsession that drives him and so many others:

I really have to watch myself, especially around plants. Even now, just being here, I still get that collector feeling. You know what I mean. I'll see something and then suddenly I get that feeling. It's like I can't just have something--I have to have it and learn about it and grow it and sell it and master it and have a million of it.
Even Orlean--so leery of orchid fever that she immediately gives away any plant that's pressed upon her by the growers in Laroche's circle--develops a desire to see a ghost orchid blooming and makes several ultimately unsuccessful treks into the Fakahatchee. Filled with Palm Beach socialites, Native Americans, English peers, smugglers, and naturalists as improbably colorful as the tropical blossoms that inspire them, this is a lyrical, funny, addictively entertaining read. --Barrie Trinkle --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

For listeners seeking to learn something new, Orlean offers a whimsical look at the sexy, mysterious world of orchids. Perfect for anyone who wants to know a little bit about a lot of things, this quirky, quintessential New Yorker story pulls back the curtain on a community of people who are driven by a passion to collect and cultivate some very exotic plants. New York journalist Orlean first learned about orchid "thief" John Laroche by reading a story about him in a local Florida newspaper. He (along with his henchmen, three Seminole Indians) had been taken to court for removing an endangered species of orchid from the state's Fakahatchee Swamp. Orlean hightailed it down to the Sunshine State to investigate and wound up immersing herself in the wacky world of orchid maniacs, intrigued more by their passion than by the orchids themselves. Myers's reading vacillates between the inspiring and the pedagogical. When reading passages about the over-the-top nature of some eccentric orchid collectors, her tone borders on the affected. But during the book's more introspective moments, as when Orlean wishes she could be as passionate about something as her subjects are about orchids, Myers turns quiet and pensive. Overall, Myers's enthusiastic performance is a perfect complement to Orlean's book and the new motion picture loosely based on it, Adaptation.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Series: Ballantine Reader's Circle
  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Ballantine Books; 13th edition (January 4, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 044900371X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0449003718
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (274 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #55,143 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Susan Orlean has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1992. She is the author of seven books, including Rin Tin Tin, Saturday Night, and The Orchid Thief, which was made into the Academy Award-winning film Adaptation. She lives with her family and her animals in upstate New York and may be reached at SusanOrlean.com and Twitter.com/SusanOrlean.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

106 of 109 people found the following review helpful By DAMwriter on January 27, 2000
Format: Paperback
First, a few caveats (it's always best to be up-front about ones biases and assumptions): 1) I haven't read Ms. Orlean's 'New Yorker' article, so I have no basis of comparison between it and this book. 2) I have never lived in South Florida, and have only visited Miami Beach twice, so my ability to say what is "true" about Florida's history and culture is somewhat limited and I won't even bother to attempt to verify any of Ms. Orlean's assertions. Fact - or slightly modified fact - I don't know...
That being said, this book is a very enjoyable, engaging read. No, it does not have a particularly suspenseful or intriguing STORYline, especially if what you're looking for is an amazing-but-true mystery with high drama and a surprise ending. The author says, from the beginning, that she can only deal in the facts of the case - if she wants to keep this a non-fiction book, she's limited by real events. What she does, very successfully, however, is reveal the fascinating world of obsession and collecting - in this case, for a particular form of plant.
And she does this with amazing ease and grace. Like her guides in the swamps, Ms. Orlean takes us through lessons in history, evolution, geology and botany - subjects which could be incredibly dry in someone else's hands - and connects them neatly with her incredible descriptions of current orchid mania - the characters, the controversies, and the competition. Her ability to make those connections allows the reader to take a step further, and make their own, outside of what she has written. I constantly found myself saying, "Oh my, that's the (explorer/patron/flower) that (did this/went there/made that).
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117 of 123 people found the following review helpful By E. Bukowsky HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 1, 2003
Format: Paperback
Susan Orlean's "The Orchid Thief" is an intriguing look at people who are obsessed with collecting orchids. Originally, Ms. Orlean's main focus was to write a profile of John Laroche in "The New Yorker" magazine. Laroche is an offbeat character who spent a great deal of time and money amassing a huge orchid collection. When Laroche banded together with a group of Seminole Indians to steal orchids from the Fakahatchee Strand, a 63,000-acre preserve in southwest Florida, he was arrested and tried for his crime.

Orlean eventually expanded her article on Laroche into this book. She widened the scope of her research and came up with many interesting tidbits about orchids and those who collect them. For example, I learned that orchids often outlive human beings. In fact, orchids can theoretically live forever, since they have no natural enemies. Some orchid owners designate a person as an "orchid heir" in their wills, since the owners expect that their precious orchids will outlive them.

The author has a delicious sense of wonder, a beautiful and lyrical writing style, and an eye for fascinating details. She has the ability to place the reader in the middle of a swamp, at an orchid show, or on an expedition into the wilds of South America. Not only does Orlean provide the reader with little known facts about orchids, but she also explores some of the oddities of human nature. What causes people to become so passionate about collecting orchids that they risk their fortunes or even their lives to acquire rare species of this coveted plant? When does a passion for collecting orchids become an unhealthy obsession?

If you are tired of reading formulaic novels, you may want to join Susan Orlean on her exciting and memorable journey into the world of orchid collecting. You do not have to be a plant lover, a gardener or a botanist to enjoy "The Orchid Thief."
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38 of 39 people found the following review helpful By Dee on October 21, 1999
Format: Hardcover
Susan Orlean has really done it this time. She has written a book about, "passion itself, and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it." Is it any wonder that her readers feel so passionately about this book. Many orchid experts find fault with the book's facts and criticize the lack of passion for orchids from Ms. Orlean while lovers of a good story and that crazy world known as south Florida rave about it. For my part, I enjoyed reading the Orchid Thief. It reads like a novel, so while I did notice a horticultural error or two myself, I was not reading it as a reference book, but for entertainment. I didn't find it to be quite the page turner I was expecting, but the characters are memorable, the stories are interesting and Ms. Orlean's writing is a pleasure. I am an amazon.com associate.
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56 of 61 people found the following review helpful By sweetmolly on August 25, 2002
Format: Paperback
"The Orchid Thief" is an expansion of an article written for "The New Yorker." It is well worth your while to read the book. The author enlarges on the history of collecting orchids, orchid hunters, and the flower itself. She is to be commended for her research on all and the Seminole Indians as well. Did you know the Seminoles are technically still at war with the United States? They are the only tribe that never signed a treaty.
The title character, John LaRoche is almost-but-not-quite worth the focus he receives. He has a quirky mindset, an enthusiasm that is catching; but his total self-absorption gets tiresome. His knowledge and keenness for the art and science of plants is entertaining. But hey, the guy is a small time crook, a trail of unrealized dreams, and a very poor friend. In spite of many denials, I think Susan had more than a mild crush on him; why else put up with all his inconsiderate nonsense?
The description of the various orchids is masterful, (How I wished for color plates!) and Susan was vivid in all interior and exterior moods in her depiction of Florida. So much so, I would state southern Florida is the underlying theme of the book. Her experiences and bravery in the beastly Fakahatchee Swamp, home of many wild orchids, are dramatic. Plunging into brackish water up to the waist, and having to toe around for submerged alligators on the squishy bottom is not for the faint of heart.
Part of the enjoyment of this fine non-fictional work is the very likeable Susan herself. She tends to be shy, hates the heat, is homesick, tired of driving all over, fears the swamp, but she persists. The end result is well worth her efforts.
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