Book Review: The Overstory

Old Irish Abbey
Old Irish Abbey

Each year for the holidays, the founder of my company gifts a book. Last year the gift was The Overstory by Richard Powers. I’ve written about recommendations and our founder has an excellent track record. Previously, he gifted Sapiens and A River Runs Through It… great recommendations. The Overstory caused a stir a few years ago (LNK) but was new to me.

The Overstory started strongly. Powers divided the book into three main sections; the first, Roots, was riveting. Powers introduces an eclectic cast of characters with no obvious connection, other than trees. All the characters plant or interact with trees while living lives marked with tragedy. I loved this part of the book… just the right combination of asking questions (how do these people intersect, why are they so different, what is happening with the trees) and information about the history of trees, blights and man’s interaction with forests and the natural world.

The Understory, the next section, is where most of the characters come together and the “action” happens. The Understory moves well, although reading David Mitchell spoiled me for disconnected stories coming together… it seemed more like icebergs floating toward each other than intertwined lives. In this section, the biggest flaw with the work also appears; a heavy-handed treatment of the discussion on trees. I love trees and have learned how they interact, mainly from The Secret Life of Trees. I’m open to learning more. But Powers repeats and bludgeons the reader with the importance of forests and trees and the accompanying ecosystem… to where it becomes a negative, rather than a positive message. An interesting crossover to other books I’ve reviewed here is the eco-activism. The Monkey Wrench Gang is the canonical novel and shades of that activity appear in this second section.

This continues through the third and final section, where the intertwining lives and plots resolve. Not every ending is tidy or happy (in a good way) but many of the character resolve in a slow descent. So slow that less than a week from reading, I can’t recall how each character arc ended.

The Overstory is a good read. I love disconnected/related stories and trees. Powers wanted his intertwined characters to connect below the surface like magnificent old-growth forests. The Overstay starts out strong and balanced and doesn’t quite deliver on the promise.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *