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The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

Written by Susan Orlean

Narrated by Anna Fields


The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession

Written by Susan Orlean

Narrated by Anna Fields

ratings:
3.5/5 (59 ratings)
Length:
4 hours
Released:
Jul 18, 2002
ISBN:
9781615730827
Format:
Audiobook

Description

John Laroche, an obsessed Florida plant dealer, willing to go to any lengths to steal rare and protected wild orchids and clone them—and all for a tidy profit. But the morality of Laroche's actions do not drive the narrative of Orlean’s strange, compelling, and hilarious book. She is much more interested in the spectacle this unusual man creates through his actions, including one of the oddest legal controversies in recent memory, which brought together environmentalists, Native American activists, and devoted orchid collectors. She follows Laroche deep into Florida’s swamps, tapping into not only the psyche of the deeply opinionated Laroche but also the wider subculture of orchid collectors, including aristocrats, fanatics, and smugglers whose obsession with plants is all-consuming. Orlean portrays the weirdness of it all in wonderful detail, but, ultimately, the book is primarily about passion itself and the amazing lengths to which people will go to gratify it.

Released:
Jul 18, 2002
ISBN:
9781615730827
Format:
Audiobook

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 Los Angeles and may be reached at SusanOrlean.com and Twitter.com/SusanOrlean.


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Reviews

What people think about The Orchid Thief

3.6
59 ratings / 38 Reviews
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Reader reviews

  • (3/5)
    Nice write up, try to apply this book's process to grows Orchid in my garden.
  • (3/5)
    This was a fun read when you want something a bit ridiculous and weird to shake up your reading. With the whole Florida man trend in the news, this book definitely sums up the entire thing. It followed the trial of a man who stole orchid from a protected park and the showed how the results of that trial impacted his life and those involved in the issue. It was definitely a weird read and not for everyone but I’m happy I gave it a try.
  • (3/5)
    I just didn't find this very interesting, which was surprising as The Library Book is one of my all time favorites.
  • (4/5)
    I think I was expecting more, given how expensive even the Kindle edition of this book is on Amazon. Somehow, when a digital book comes with a $17 price tag, I figure it’ll be special. It was an interesting enough read for the most part and I loved most of the descriptive passages. S Orlean has a real handle on metaphor and on building images and she really brought the swamps and nature to life for me. She also writes with a sense of humour that works for me and she confirmed that our decision to skip southern Florida, when we passed through the state, was a good one. Arm chair travel works for me.But. While there were some really interesting sections of the book - I had no idea how obsessed some people are about orchids & knew nothing about the orchid ‘industry’ or history - the interesting sections were countered by tedium. I found the organization of the chapters choppy and the flow weird and confusing as to time frames. I finished it but was looking forward to being done from about two thirds in. Maybe sooner.
  • (5/5)
    Over all it's a fascinating look at orchid collecting, the industry, the hobby, the culture around it and its history. The book starts as the author attempts to follow the trial of a man accused of trying to steal (and clone) the Ghost Orchid which grows in the wilds of Florida. The trial quickly gets left behind as the chapters follow their own orchid related tangents. By the last eighty pages I was ready for the book to refocus on the main "characters" as the book had begun to drag.
  • (3/5)
    An article turns into a book about people who are obsessed about these flowers that grow in Florida. Focus is particularly on John Laroche, a strange but charasmatic guy who wants people to think he does good by being bad. Chock full of trivia about orchid collecting and collectors, with emphasis on the scene in Florida.
  • (4/5)
    The Orchid Thief took me a little while to finish even though it is a thin little book. It was full of information about orchids, the passions that drive collectors to find the perfect orchid or to own all of something beautiful or rare. I found out about pollinating and growing new species as well as receiving a first hand look in the dense bogs and forests that house and nurture rare species of orchids. I was surprised by the greed and search for ownership that the scenes portrayed when looking at the passions that drove some of the collectors. This book is a good read for gardeners and collectors and those that wish to examine some of the intentions that drive individuals to collect, preserve and own precious things. I gave it a 3.5 but rated it 4 because it is better than a 3.
  • (4/5)
    The setting in this interesting book is South Florida. It's about orchids and the passion they invoke in people all over the world. Susan Orlean does a great job educating us about the history of orchids and the people who collect them. Since I live in Central Florida and have been to South Florida a few times, I recognized names of places and enjoyed her depiction of the area. The swampy area called the Fakahatchee Strand and what it's like to hunt plants in it was hair-raising.This talented author walked through the swamp in mucky stuff up to her waist hunting orchids, especially the 'ghost' orchid. The protagonist is an eccentric man who is an orchid thief from whom she learns about botanical obsession. There are several other charismatic people involved in her journey. Also, she tells about the Seminole Indian Tribe that populates some of that land. She relays information on tribal customs, names, and laws.If you want to read a non-fiction book that seems like fiction, this is the book for you. You don't have to be an orchid or even a plant lover to enjoy it.
  • (3/5)
    I started reading about this book because I thought I was interested in learning about orchids and some of the culture around them. I found out that I am not *that* interested in orchids and Florida. I read the first 60 pages of this and it took me awhile to get through that. I kept finding other things (any other thing) to do rather than read this book. So, I ended up setting this aside.The beginning of this book comes off as some strange ode to Florida; this really struck a false note with me because I went to Florida a lot as a kid (my grandparents lived there) and I do not like Florida...I will never like Florida.After the diatribe about how awesome and unique Florida is the book goes into a ton of detail on orchids. This was kind of cool but it was just too much for me. The way Olean writes is almost overly descriptive; she has a habit of spending a long time describing things and making long lists of items which came off as a bit text-bookish and was just a huge info dump.Overall this book just wasn’t my cup of tea. It was boring and a bit preachy about the wonders of Florida. I would recommend reading the first chapter of the book before buying and seeing how you like it; the first chapter is pretty representative of the book.
  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I really enjoyed this book. It provided a lot of information about orchids and the people who are obsessed with them. I enjoyed the history that the author included in the book, starting with the "discovery" of the new world and building up to the present day. Having said that, I can only assume that the author got the book published while her editor was away on vacation. She frequently lapsed into side-stories that added nothing to the story and served only as filler. It was overall a pretty well written book, but needed some real editing.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    There were places in Washington which I truly missed as I left to begin my journey in the Arizona desert. One of those places was a small plot of land encased in glass. This magical place belonged to my sister's husband and behind those walls of glass he nurtured and loved a wondrous collection of orchids. There were times of the year you could visit and as you walked through the door, your reality was transposed to color and light and the most fragile images, some orchids sat suspended with their flowers reaching through the air like a promised whisper. Other's would strut boldly from their austere homes with the confidence of soldiers. It is understandable that while reading "The Orchid Thief", I was often taken back to the memories of this small, enchanting plot of land and I emerged with greater understanding of his love for same. It is seven years from seed to the first bloom of an orchid plant, this can only be the patience which loving something well bestows. When The Orchid Thief first came to the shelves of bookstores, I was intrigued with its premise, but at the same time, leery of its promise. It seemed at once to be a tale of an eccentric orchid collector, but also a textbook of botany and orchid history. It was the last impression which made me keep sidestepping around this book, not sure that such formula would work to keep my interest. I finally gave in to my curiosity and picked it up, and from page one there was no turning back. This is not a book of botany, it is not merely a book about orchids, it is so vast in its scope and offerings that it is many things at once and most of all, it is truly fascinating. In the hands of Orlean, those things which would seem mundane take on a force all their own. It opens the world not only to orchids, this in itself an engrossing subject, but also to human obsessions and the lengths to which we'll stretch to meet them. Orchids have caused as much grief as they have joy through the centuries. They have caused human beings to commit murder in pursuit of rare species, to catapult headlong into the collection of same, forsaking everything else to this one pursuit. Susan Orlean takes you to Florida, and there she introduces you to some of the most prominent people in the orchid industry, the orchid moguls. As well, she doesn't fail to overlook the dreamers, who seem to live on just that, a dream of owning that one very rare species which will transform their lives to one of wealth and fame. But she doesn't stop there, within all these pieces, she also weaves a history of Florida, its native peoples, the land, its fauna and flora. She does this so well that there is never a prosaic moment in this book. I truly found it difficult to put down and always eager to get back too. Interspersed with all the history are tidbits which delight, such as the fact that Darrow, the creater of the world famous boardgame Monopoly, was himself an avid collector of orchids who took his Monopoly money and at the age of 46, retired to devote himself to his orchids. Florida remains today one of North America's largest producers of orchids. Many still grow wild within the confines of the Fakahatchee Strand, but are now protected under the Endangered Species Act. Though the craze of the late 1800's seems to have waned, there is still big business in orchid smuggling and big prices paid for the rarer species. It's early in the year, and I've lots of books to go, but at this point in time, The Orchid Thief is easily slotted for a Top Ten read. I recommend this, you won't be disappointed.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (2/5)
    This movie got turned, sort of, into Adaptation, a film I quite enjoyed. The book itself is not postmodern, just a story of a guy who has had multiple enthusiasms in his life. The one that got him in the most trouble so far was his passion for orchids, specifically the rare (and protected) ghost orchid, which he schemed to remove from Florida’s swamps. Basically, he’s a grandiose character, and Orleans occasionally gets swept up in his delusions, along with the mystique of orchids, which for some reason inspire passion in their collectors even though they’re often ugly, hard to keep alive, and even smelly. This is at heart a story of dreams gone sour, potential not achieved, and dreams without the will to make necessary compromises with reality. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
  • (4/5)
    The Orchid Thief is kind of a strange book. On the one hand, it's about John Laroche, a plant dealer and outcast, who was arrested in 1994 with a group three Seminole Indians for stealing rare orchids from a southern Florida swamp. This is where Susan Orlean began with the story after seeing a tiny blurb in a small, local newspaper. The book grows far beyond that source material, however, and sort of meanders through the orchid world, revealing the beauty of the plants and the obsession people have about collecting them. But Laroche's is only one part of the story. Over the course of the book, Orlean looks at the biology of the orchids (noting that there are over 100,000 species), goes in the history of orchid hunting and the mania of collectors when the plants were first discovered, meets various collectors at functions and explores their history as collectors, points out orchid grower rivalries, shares the history of the Fakahatchee Strand Preserve and describes it in lovingly detail, goes into the history of the Seminole Indians in the area and their local heroes, among other little tidbits of facts and history and science, all while weaving in her own experiences in Florida and her obsession with discovering why people are so obsessed with these flowers with Laroche cropping up every once in a while like an odd, lanky swamp bird. Thus, the book is an unusual mixture of crime story, character sketch, historical account, biology lesson, and travel memoir, one that is far from objective and deeply fascinating to read. For those who may not be aware, The Orchid Thief is the basis for the 2002 movie Adaptation, staring Nicolas cage. And reading it now, I can certainly see why Charlie Kaufman had such trouble adapting the book into a movie. There is no way to do a straight adaptation, as the kind of meandering quality wouldn't work on the screen and the ending in the book (while a perfect declaration of the incomplete quality of everyday life just going on) wouldn't work for a movie format. In a sense, Kaufman's adaptation of the book is perfect, because just as Susan Orlean took a story meant to be about Laroche and his adventures and controversies and she interjected herself into the story, making it as much about her own experience as about Laroche, Kaufman took her book and made a movie script that was just as much about himself (or an idea of himself) as it was about the story — which is kind of a cool parallel.
  • (3/5)
    Rex Stout’s fat detective suffered from orchidelirium. He would never vary his routine of working in his famous plant rooms on the top floor of the brownstone house no matter what the emergency, to Archie Goodwin’s consternation.
    Like bibliomania, orchidelirium is a mania that involves collecting — unlimited collecting. The orchid is “a jewel of a flower on a haystack of a plant.” Orchids have evolved into the “biggest flowering plant family on earth,” and many survive only in small niches they have carved out for themselves. They are found in many different environments, and human hybridization of the plants creates more varieties all the time.
    Those afflicted can never seem to get enough. Susan Orlean describes this mania in her fascinating book, which is a compendium of information about orchids as well. The number of orchid species is unknown, and more are discovered or developed all the time. Larceny among collectors is not unknown, and Orlean describes John Laroche, a man of many manias — he collected turtles, and I mean lots of turtles, as a child. Laroche dreamed of making a fortune by finding the one really rare specimen of plant that he could then breed and sell. Seeing himself as a moral thief, Laroche, rationalized his larcenous behavior. He allied himself with the Seminoles, knowing that they were exempt from federal laws prohibiting the collection of wild orchids, so that he could hopefully collect and breed the rare ghost orchid. His justification was that once bred it would likely no longer be collected illegally.
    Apparently, flower theft is epidemic in Florida; one case Orlean cites was the theft of a fifteen-foot palm tree. The tree was dug up and the hole filled in during the night. How they managed that with no one noticing is somewhat startling. One farmer lost $20,000 worth of bell peppers from his fields. He decided to get out of the business.
    Laroche merely provides anecdotal backdrops for a very interesting history of the mania for orchid collecting.

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    I really enjoyed this - a well written investigative history of Florida, plants, orchids, crazy people and a bundle of other fascinating things. No real plot but definitely a story.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (3/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    The Orchid Thief by Susan OrleanShe travels to FL when she reads of the arrest of John LaRoche. He and Seminole tribe members stole orchids from protected state property. Some people are obsessed with these plants. She follows them and learns all about the plants. He had hoped to clone and sell the plants.When in FL we had visited the world's largest orchid place in Kissimmee so I had wanted to read about this story.Liked the places the reporter traveled to obtain information about varieties of the orchids. Liked how the process is described on how to mutant and graft the plants.I received this book from National Library Service for my BARD (Braille Audio Reading Device).

    1 person found this helpful

  • (4/5)

    1 person found this helpful

    Several years ago a movie was made from this book. Of course, it bears little or no resemblance to what the author wrote about, but I'm grateful for it because otherwise I probably would never have picked up this volume to read.The book is an expansion of an article the author wrote for The New Yorker about John Laroche an extremely smart and eccentric Floridian who was arrested for stealing rare and endangered orchid from the Fakahatchee State Wildlife Preserve. His theory was that since he was using Seminole Indians to do the actual stealing, and he presumed that they were exempt from state and Federal laws, that the arrest would not hold up in court. He was incorrect in that assumption and the tale might have ended there if Orlean herself had not become fascinated by both Laroche and the strange culture that surrounds plant collectors in general and orchid collectors in particular.The book is a rambling history of the state of Florida and its development as well as the history of orchids and the lengths that collectors will go to procure a new specimen. If you have ever read Carl Hiassem's thrillers, you'll recognize the models for a bunch of his characters in this book. Florida must truly be populated with eccentrics of all stripes.This book is a fascinating read.

    1 person found this helpful

  • (5/5)
    This is one of my favorite books ever. I read this book when I had just moved to Florida and found the observations of Orlean extremely insightful of this strange state. I enjoyed the adventures of the real life historic Orchid hunters, and the flurry of popularity and danger a simple flower could insight. But orchids are not simple flowers, nor are those who covet them. The biggest reason I liked this book is that it was created over a single, small newspaper article Susan Orlean happened to come across and decide to investigate.
  • (3/5)
    Why did I think this was a book of fiction? It must have been the title, and the fact that it was made into a movie (and, I understand, a movie about the movie). I'm imagining what the movie makers left in, what tehy took out, and what they added added to sustain it.So it's not a book of fiction. It's more like a John McPhee book, chock full of people, science, history, and happenstance. Susan Orlean gets hooked on an orchid thief - journalisticly speaking - and investigates the man and the world of orchids in Florida (mainly) and the mania for them worldwide. Aside from the original manic enthusiast, she introduces other orchid growers and breeders, history of orchid hunters and their patrons, and the murky overlap of the law as it relates to people in general versus Seminoles in particular. This was originally an article in the New Yorker (McPhee again), and it shows, as she pads the book with side trips into history, jungles, flower shows, mud, alligators and, above all, the orchids themselves. For a book all about them, filled with detailed descriptions of them, not to have pictures of them is a staggering tease. And she repeats herself one too many times in very specific ways (didn't she already talk about why that guy hated the other guy?), which makes it feel a bit pasted together.So why did I finish the book? I was looking for the punchline, the button on the story about the orchid thief himself. And she does provide same - it's just not the payoff I had hoped for.
  • (2/5)
    I found this book to be overrated and disappointing. As another reviewer pointed out, it was more like a very long magazine article than a book. Orlean threw in a lot of information about orchids, orchid hunters, orchid obsessives etc., but to me it didn't add up to a coherent whole. The paragraphs were way too long and run-on as well.
  • (3/5)
    This is a great story of survival. So many of the characters are fighting for their survival; be it from domestic violence, mental illness or personal demons. The characters come to life off the pages, some to love, some to hate, it is a great mix of both. I did think the story to be a bit wordy at times, it seemed some of the narrative could have been cut out without hurting the story. This would be a very interesting title for a book club as there are many topics to discuss.
  • (4/5)
    This is a great work of nonfiction -- though, even though I gave it four stars, I do think it worked better as a magazine story than as a full-length book. But the four stars recognize 1) Orlean's excellent reporting and writing skills in teasing out both the historical weirdnesses of orchid mania and the contemporary weirdnesses of orchid collectors and 2) her truly excellent capture of South Florida weirdness, something that is often done cartoonishly (Elmore Leonard, Carl Hiaasen) but rarely straight-up.
  • (3/5)
    At one time in my life I had the orchid bug. I belonged to the local orchid society and rescued sad immature plants from supermarkets to see what they might produce. I read, I studied, and I visited my plants daily to check on their condition. I so understand the characters in this book (though I never in my life stole a single plant).I listened to the audio version read by Jennifer Jay Myers while painting my bathroom. Primarily the story is about a man obsessed with obtaining and propagating a rare orchid found in the Florida Everglades, but the reader learns about the history of manic collectors and hunters and how orchid nurseries grew in popularity in the U.S. One also learns a lot about the fascinating orchid: why the incredible range in colors and shapes, where they are found, and most of all, how people become passionate orchid growers.Some of the information about hunters and collectors reminded me of a book I read about the Lord God Bird, one of many species of birds hunted to extinction or the brink thereof for their feathers used to ornament women's hats. This was another example of man's using nature for his own benefit without considering the impact on nature. Naturists will enjoy this book.
  • (4/5)
    In her quest to find out more about orchids, author Orleans finds the characters and personalities that keep the floral economy spinning. She becomes a bit smitten herself in her quest to find a blooming "ghost orchid" in a Florida swamp. Lots of history about the growth of orchids worldwide and how 19th and early 20th century Americans and Western Europeans pretty successfully raped the tropics of many species.
  • (3/5)
    This was an unexpected find - set in South Florida with lots of history about the area, the Seminole Tribe, and how this part of the State came to be populated. Also a thorough lesson on orchids - cultivation, varieties. The author reports on her time in Florida spent with avid collectors (one in particular started the whole thing by making the news trying to take orchids out of a protected area), experiencing their own particular culture, and searching for the elusive Ghost Orchid.
  • (4/5)
    This writer could make a cracked sidewalk an interesting subject. I know almost nothing about plants, but I quickly became drawn into this story of the people who are deeply passionate about orchids. Recommended.
  • (3/5)
    When my pharmacist caught sight of this book, he asked if it was a thriller. That is one thing this book is not. It is, however, a slew of other things. Though it began more or less as Orlean's interest in the trial of one John Laroche, a Florida man caught poaching ghost orchids off park land with a trio of Seminole Indians, it rapidly blossomed into a full-scale investigation of the orchid-loving life. Evidently people go mad for these plants, sort of a "gotta catch 'em all" attitude for the floraphile set. And considering there are tens of thousands of orchid breeds, many costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars and meticulous care, it can become quite the costly and timely pursuit. Sound boring? Surprisingly, it isn't. Perhaps the most fascinating part for me was not the unexpectedly vehement passions of orchid enthusiasts, but rather Orlean's bald-faced judgementalism. It said a lot about her attitudes, and rather than being an impartial observer, she was clearly flabbergasted by the entire orchid culture - indeed, about any passion of that magnitude for anything. Without that air of "OMG look how weird this is" permeating throughout the story, this would have been rather dull. I didn't know the orchid world was so cutthroat, but after you've spent time with sports fanatics and anime fanboys, you realize that there are many things in this world that interest people far more than they do you, and nothing is too unusual to obsess over.
  • (3/5)
    Very nice prose and a truckload of fascinating facts about orchids (and the crazy peoples who love them) and the state of Florida. Infortunately, the book kind of peter out instead of truly reaching a conclusion.
  • (2/5)
    This book was orginially a piece for The New Yorker. You can tell the author had trouble stretching the material. Lots o fluff and inconsiquencial details. It felt poorly written and lost my interest, regardless of the topic.
  • (1/5)
    quite possibly the most boring book i've ever read.