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The Overstory

Review

The Overstory

Every once in a while, you happen upon a book whose reading experience is completely immersive, the kind of book you wake up thinking about and stay up late just to read a few more pages. Richard Powers’ latest novel, THE OVERSTORY, offers that kind of experience, made all the more remarkable because it’s not a thriller or a suspense novel, but rather a 500-page ode to a truly slow-moving organism: the tree.

Powers, in previous works like THE GOLD BUG VARIATIONS and GALATEA 2.2, has gained a reputation for being a rather cerebral novelist. And certainly THE OVERSTORY is powerfully intellectual and well informed, littered with quotes and philosophies from Muir, Thoreau and Carson, as well as tidbits about everything from computer science to cutting-edge studies in plant biology. But Powers’ new novel, while intellectually rigorous, is also passionate and full of genuine emotional yearning and regard for the fragile, ailing planet on which we reside.

"THE OVERSTORY is a vital and urgent novel, one that is profoundly humanistic while also reminding readers that human lives are dwarfed by forces we haven’t even begun to comprehend."

Like a tree, THE OVERSTORY is separated into sections: “Root,” “Trunk,” “Crown” and “Seeds.” In the opening section, “Root,” Powers introduces us to his rich and varied cast of characters, whose lives at first might seem completely disconnected from one another. There’s Nick Hoel, an art student whose forebears brought one lone chestnut tree from the East Coast to their Iowa farm and recorded its growth over decades. There’s Adam Appich, a quiet child from an exuberant family, who finds meaning and solace in tracking and recording the symbiotic relationships of ant colonies. There’s Patricia Westerford, whose lifelong passion for and academic study of trees grows out of the spark lit by her arborist father. And, among others, there’s Olivia Vandergriff, a cynical college student whose near-death experience alters the course of her life --- and the lives of many others.

Each of these characters, as they are introduced in exquisitely crafted vignettes, is identified with a particular tree species. But, like the forest itself, in the novel’s subsequent sections, the boundaries between these individuals and their personal stories grow increasingly porous, as their connections --- whether powerfully personal or more incidental --- grow intrinsic to their lives, their communities and their world.

This book is epic in every sense of the word --- it extends over multiple decades and ranges freely through geography as well, though its heart seems to lie with the grand giants in the redwood groves of California and the Pacific Northwest. Images of environmental activists occupying a series of platforms precariously perched high in the limbs of an ancient giant slated for destruction are indelible, as is a moment when a tech guru, at odds with the virtual world he has built, tries and fails to argue for a different, more compassionate and creative type of world-building.

If the novel’s opening section is structured more formally, its final section becomes gradually more impressionistic and even mystical at times, as the boundaries between stories and between lives --- both human and plant, real and imagined --- break down. As Powers profoundly, and at times tragically, illustrates how much we owe to one another and just how high the stakes are, the book begins to serve as a call to action --- for humans to sit up and take notice of the world around us, to wonder if the Earth might be better off without us, and to question what might be done to salvage our relationship with the organisms whose effects we might not either see or entirely understand.

THE OVERSTORY is a vital and urgent novel, one that is profoundly humanistic while also reminding readers that human lives are dwarfed by forces we haven’t even begun to comprehend.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on April 13, 2018

The Overstory
by Richard Powers

  • Publication Date: April 3, 2018
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 039363552X
  • ISBN-13: 9780393635522