Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: The Roots of the Olive Tree

Summary: Meet the Keller family, five generations of firstborn women—an unbroken line of daughters—living together in the same house on a secluded olive grove in the Sacramento Valley of Northern California. 

Anna, the family matriarch, is 112 and determined to become the oldest person in the world. An indomitable force, strong in mind and firm in body, she rules Hill House, the family home she shares with her daughter Bets, granddaughter Callie, great-granddaughter Deb, and great-great-granddaughter Erin. Though they lead ordinary lives, there is an element of the extraordinary to these women: the eldest two are defying longevity norms. Their unusual lifespans have caught the attention of a geneticist who believes they hold the key to breakthroughs that will revolutionize the aging process for everyone. 

But Anna is not interested in unlocking secrets the Keller blood holds. She believes there are some truths that must stay hidden, including certain knowledge about her origins that she has carried for more than a century. Like Anna, each of the Keller women conceals her true self from the others. While they are bound by blood and the house they share, living together has not always been easy. And it is about to become more complicated now that Erin, the youngest, is back, alone and pregnant, after two years abroad with an opera company. Her return and the arrival of the geneticist who has come to study the Keller family ignites explosive emotions that these women have kept buried and uncovers revelations that will shake them all to their roots. 

Told from varying viewpoints, Courtney Miller Santo's compelling and evocative debut novel captures the joys and sorrows of family—the love, secrets, disappointments, jealousies, and forgiveness that tie generations to one another. -- William Morrow

I was so looking forward to reading THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE by Courtney Miller Santo. The description was definitely appealing to me -- a story about five generations of women who live on an olive grove; and I had even read an early blogger review which just raved about the novel. By all accounts, I really thought this book would be one that I'd enjoy. You know how I love books about strong women and dysfunctional families!

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE follows five generations of women, Anna, Bets, Callie, Deb, and Erin. (I could keep their names straight because they were in alphabetical order beginning with "A.") All five women live in the same house with the 112 year old Anna being not only the matriarch, but the glue that keeps the family together. The Keller family is typical in many ways; however, it also has one very unique quality. As evidenced by Anna and even Bets, these women seem to have an ability to defy normal life spans.

When a geneticist comes to both interview and research this family, Anna isn't so sure she wants somebody digging into their personal lives. She believes that there are some things better left hidden. As the doctor delves into their world with the hopes of finding the key to their longevity, it becomes obvious that each of these five women have secrets that they don't want known. Their desire to keep their secrets causes much emotion, tension, and even heartache; and, as a result, their home life is filled with a great deal of drama.

I would love to tell you how special THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE was to me. Unfortunately, it didn't really work. While I loved the premise and was sure that the novel would resonate with me (until recently, I was the third generation out of four of first born women/girls in our family), I was definitely left wanting for more. I had some issues with the character development and the dropped (or unexplained) story lines; however, I think the biggest disappointment was that I didn't end up getting to know, or even care about, the individual characters. And in a novel like THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE, I think liking and/or understanding the characters is essential to my enjoyment of the story.

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE wasn't a very long novel, just under 300 pages; and I have to wonder if the author didn't try to do too much with the story in that number of pages. Initially, I liked that the story was told in third person showing the different viewpoints of these five women, but I also felt like there just wasn't enough detail about each woman and her history. While each one of them had a pretty interesting background story, I never truly got to know any of them well enough to understand their actions, nevertheless feel compassion towards them.

In addition, I felt as if the transitions between characters was a little confusing (but that could just be me.) It took me quite a few chapters to even get the characters and their issues straight; and once I did, I discovered that I wasn't all that interested in any of their stories (except Anna -- I loved her!) That might sound rather harsh (especially for me), but these women were so petty to each other that I couldn't get past it. I know families have issues, and when you take into account this was a family made up of women, there is going to be the potential for drama. However, these women were so bitter and their lack of real communication got under my skin.

That's not to say that there weren't some redeeming qualities to THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE. I did think the author had a way with words and some of her prose was often times very eloquent. In fact, I truly appreciated her descriptions of the olive groves as well as how she used the olives and the trees as symbols throughout the story. I also appreciated that she explored some unique ideas about aging. I'm assuming that she did some research on the subject matter, and some of the concepts that were presented definitely piqued my interest.

THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE would probably make for an interesting book club discussion. I'm sure there will be some big fans of this book who would disagree with everything I've said, so there is an opportunity for some interesting debate. I wasn't able to find a formal discussion guide, but there is a lot of things to discuss concerning family dynamics. In addition, you might want to explore mother/daughter relationships, love, marriage, genes, dementia, responsibilities, secrets, jealousy, faith, forgiveness, and redemption.

While THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE wasn't my cup of tea, I have a feeling that this book will appeal to many female readers. It's in a unique look at dysfunctional families and the strength of women.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Beth F said...

I'm so sorry this one didn't live up to its promise. I've had my eye on it because I love family stories.

bermudaonion said...

I'm reading this now and am enjoying it so far. We'll see how the last 75 pages go.

Serena said...

I received this one unexpectedly in the mail and wasn't sure if I wanted to read it, now I'm even more cautious. generational sagas have to really be exceptional for me to continue reading them.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

This does sound like an interesting premise. And it's good to see someone branch off (so to speak) from bee hives...

Literary Feline said...

I am sorry this one didn't work for you. I agree, it does sound like an interesting premise--and I particularly noted the setting (I, in part, grew up in that area). I will probably see what others have to say about this one before deciding one way or the other on it. I have a feeling your issues with it might be my own too, if I do read it.