"The Overstory" by Richard Powers

By Powers, Richard

Reviewed by Andy & Shari

ISBN 9780393356687

Richard Powers' Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Overstory, continues to create a buzz and has legions of fans (some extremely passionate) and large numbers of readers less so enthusiastic.  Rarely have we seen such a divided audience.  Neither Shari nor Andy discussed the novel with each other; here are our takes:

I'm a tree guy.  I love trees.  I plant trees. I have a degree in Forest Management and I consider myself an environmentalist.  From what I'd heard and read about The Overstory, I was excited to read a book ostensibly about trees.  And I was not disappointed; the 'tree' is the primary protagonist with humans in supporting roles. Powers weaves the narrative of nine protagonists--a worthy challenge for any writer--into a tableau of arboreal overload. Each character's life is informed by trees. The lone scientist who discovers that trees are social critters and communicate; the young hippie cum tree sitter who befriends friend and foe alike, or the Vietnam War vet who, with missionary-like zeal, re-plants clear cuts, they all discover the power of the tree as live beings. Certain passages required pause and re-reading they were so beautiful: "What makes the bark twist and swirl so, in a tree so straight and wide? Could it be the spinning of the Earth? Is it trying to get the attention of men? Seven hundred years before, a chestnut in Sicily two hundred feet around sheltered a Spanish queen and her hundred mounted knights from a raging storm. That tree will outlive, by a hundred years and more, the man who has never heard of it."

At times, Powers tries too hard. Three of the nine lead characters did not speak to me, nor did they intermingle with the other six; their lives seemingly independent and quite possibly superfluous. Not unlike Barbara Kingsolver's 2012 novel Flight Behavior, Powers preaches when prose alone works. The Overstory is not going to change non believers of the looming environmental apocalypse so why try?  Stick with the beauty of the prose and let the trees speak for themselves.

Without question, to this reviewer, the Hoel Chestnut, while not human, was the strongest character of all. The romanticism of the Hoel clan photographing the regal survivor monthly, thru five generations, left me with a tangle of despair and hope. Unless we take care, nature will always have the final say. ~Andy

 

If The Monkey Wrench Gang by Edward Abbey and Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand had a love child it would be The Overstory by Richard Powers. The Pulitzer Prize winning author has written a provocative novel that invokes strong, even conflicting emotions on whatever side of the aisle you reside. Reading the Overstory brought personal memories of reading Atlas Shrugged on long train rides while living and working in Taiwan in the 90's. I remember trudging through Rand's philosophy first and enjoying the story, second. Similarly in reading the Overstory, it was clear that Powers had a message to deliver, one about trees and humans (trees vs. humans, humans vs. humans). We learn an encyclopedic amount of information about trees from a scientific point of view, and yet Powers doesn't shy away from the metaphysical viewpoint as well. His characters, a monkey wrenching cast of activists, scientists, war heroes and internet geniuses, were fitted with the task of delivering this message. Sometimes this worked as the connection between Powers gorgeous prose aligned with his flawless fiction. Conversely the book became tedious when his characters came off as servants to the message only. If you love trees, this book will open your eyes in unforgettable ways. Mystic or scientist alike there are characters for everyone. Although I wouldn't say I downright loved The Overstory, I do think it a book worth reading, both timely and important.  ~Shari

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