The Overstory ~ by Richard Powers

Overall – YES!   This is a deeply moving book – many major characters with their own stories.  At first they’re  almost like short stories,  but they all come together in various ways. (everything is connected) 

The book has been on my mind and wish list for only a few weeks,   but because someone on Pynchon-L recommended it,  it got bumped up.    I’ve read other novels by Richard Powers – ever since his incredible masterpiece The Gold Bug Variations back in 1991. That’s one of my favorite books of all time.  I’ve missed a few,  but I plan on fixing that at some point.


The Overstory 
by Richard Powers
2018/ 502 pages
read by Suzanne Toren – 22h 58m
rating:  9.6   /  contemp fiction
(read and listened)

It’s about trees and people and old stuff (trees and relics)  and new stuff (disposable modern things) including computer gaming.   But it’s also about  life and death and love and loss and grief – guilt -redemption –  and so on –  it’s all connected –  good stuff except –  yes,  there is a dark side.

I read and listened and the listened ahead and read to catch up again and then did both simultaneously – it’s that good.  I didn’t want to miss one word.

There are nine (9!)  major characters,  but they’re each in unique situations and developed nicely –  It’s never a problem.  Actually,  I cared about every one of them – they’re very alive and hugely sympathetic.  (The bad guys are not usually even named.)

Jørgen Hoel,  a Norwegian immigrant of the 1840s,  plants the seeds he got in New York on his land in Iowa – these are chestnut trees and one grows for generations. The tree is photographed hundreds of times.  His descendant, Nicholas Hoel,  becomes a famous sculptor.

Ma Sih Hsuin (aka Winston Ma) an immigrant from China in 1949 plants a mulberry tree in his back yard in Wheaton,  Illinois – a “silk farm.”   The girls grow up but the eldest, Mimi Ma,  has a few problems –

In Belleville, Illinois, circa the late 1950s,  Adam Appich‘s tree is a maple and each of his siblings has his own tree,  planted at their births –  elm, maple, ash, ironwood, and black walnut.  His maple tree grows nicely as he gets on with psychology.

In St. Paul Minnesota of the 1960s,  a property lawyer named Ray Brinkman and a stenographer named Dorothy Cazaly,  don’t much mind about trees, but get casts in Macbeth. -Brinkman as Macduff and as such leads a group of oak trees in Birnham Wood.

Douglas Pavlicek of Palo Alto participates in a psychology experiment which haunts him but he survives that as well as the late 1960s War in Vietnam by landing in a jungle with a huge banyan tree,  After that he has trouble finding work and ends up working in the forests of the northeast.

And in Silicon Valley, in the 1970s,  the dawn of the computer age, young Neelay Mehta,    is attracted to coding due to the computer his father brought home.  But the child becomes crippled after falling out of a tree.  Nevertheless,  he goes on to quite a lot of success producing games and then forests and then games.

While in East Texas,  Patricia Westerford,  a girl is born with a speech handicap in the 1950s, but grows up to get a doctorate in botany and she really understand trees.  In the 1980s, she pursues her own ideas – that trees communicate and form communities.

Olivia Vandergriff,  a rather weird and headstrong college senior in Ohio, 1989-90, is getting ready to graduate without any honors at all,  she’s often loaded…  (no spoilers) …
And then we cycle back through these characters, in a different order,  as their stories progress linearly \ we find one guy in jail,  Olivia meeting Nicholas in Iowa,  Ray and Dorothy wanting a baby,  Mimi working as a corporate executive in Portland, Oregon,  near the same place where Douglas has just barely stopped planting trees.  Neely is now in business, but still coding away down in Redwood City, CA.  Patricia is working in her field – botany,  trees.

There comes a time when the cutting edge of  technology comes into play and it reminds me of William Gibson,  but then come the gaming and it’s Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE.  The gentle little love stories in The Overstory are uniquely sweet.

There are some metaphysical overtones – or undertones – or roots – ( or maybe buds if you will?) –  to the story.  Everything is connected” and “As above, so below.”    But it’s so well written and compelling I would be listening and reading at the same time and reading ahead while iTunes rolled on only to listen to the same thing again and I kept listening until I came to a place I wanted to catch up on in the print again.  I was enthralled.  Although her reading seems a bit slow at first,  Suzanne Toren does the an excellent job.

This is the awesome work of the best of Powers – not quite the equal of The Gold Bug Variations but far above some of his other works.

There are ways in which it reminds me of –  Barkskins by Annie Proulx – 2016 (my review)  or A Friend of the Earth – 2000 by T.C. Boyle (no review) but it’s more complex than either of those.

World Resources Institute – global tree cover loss:

Cascades – ecoregion:

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6 Responses to The Overstory ~ by Richard Powers

  1. I love Richard Powers writing and love the sound of this one.


  2. Reply to Cathy’s reply – No, but it’s now on my wish list. lol – I’ve only read about half of Powers’ books. I have two on my TBR shelf the physical one here in my house and another one, this one a hardcover, unfinished – Plowing the Dark – I never could get into that one. But The Gold Bug Variations changed my life.


  3. Carmen says:

    This is the second review I read of this book this week. I like the sound of it. If only I had more time to read and less reading to cover… 😉


    • You betcha, Carmen! More time! And I’m going to North Dakota in a couple weeks and will be there for at least three weeks. My reading always goes down when I make my annual jaunts there.


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