Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers (2/5)

19 Apr

I’ll honestly say this is a book club book I was not looking forward to. Mostly because it was so long! 22 hours on audio is a lot of my life to dedicate and I was looking forward to other books that I had to put off. So going in with a negative mindset was probably not best for enjoying the story. But I had a lot of other issues which didn’t help.

Cover image via Amazon

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Summary from Amazon:

The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, is a sweeping, impassioned work of activism and resistance that is also a stunning evocation of―and paean to―the natural world. From the roots to the crown and back to the seeds, Richard Powers’s twelfth novel unfolds in concentric rings of interlocking fables that range from antebellum New York to the late twentieth-century Timber Wars of the Pacific Northwest and beyond. There is a world alongside ours―vast, slow, interconnected, resourceful, magnificently inventive, and almost invisible to us. This is the story of a handful of people who learn how to see that world and who are drawn up into its unfolding catastrophe.

If I’d read this book as part of an Environmental Science class in college, I might have liked it. I wouldn’t have minded the preachy nature of it if it was part of a learning environment. As something in my free time, I would have preferred to read a long article with the same point rather than a 22-hour audio which started with amazing characters who ended up being flat so I could get facts about radical environmentalism. This didn’t work for me as a novel and it became difficult to enjoy it as one.

The characters Powers created were initially interesting and dynamic. At the beginning of the novel, we see them realize the roles trees have played in their lives and how they are so different but yet have a similar leaning. They don’t seem to continue to evolve over the rest of the book which was a disappointment. Powers is clearly skilled at creating rich characters, but the environmental message he was pushing took over the rest of the book and hijacked what could have been an engaging character study.

Patricia was my favorite character. I felt like her development, though not in the limelight, was most interesting in the book. I liked how she grew up with her father, developing a love for trees and how she questioned the science she was learning, doing research to debunk it. I was sad for her when she was dragged through the mud and felt her vindication later on. The way she looked at her life after she decided to live for the trees was inspiring. Her relationship with her work and her husband was really beautiful and I kept wanting good things for her. I think she could have been the focus of the story and I would have enjoyed it more.

The characters in this book were a little too extreme for me to relate to. At first, I thought Mimi might be relatable, but she pushed things farther than I would have. I thought maybe Olivia would remind me of myself but the more she talked about hearing other beings, the less I related to her. I wondered if Nick was going to be my guy and I think he was closest to a relatable character for me in the book. He seemed to take a bit of a backseat and fade into the background by the end, which was sad but most of the characters seemed to take a backseat to the trees by the end and I lost a lot of interest in the story by then.

Richard Powers
Image from The Guardian

The stories at the beginning of the book, introducing the characters, were my favorite part. The way the characters were developed was really engaging for me and I was curious to see how they would all come together in the end. When I realized some of them never would come together in a meaningful way, I was disappointed. I would have loved to see Dorothy and Ray interact with Dougie or Neelay.

The ending felt odd to me and it seemed like a lot of the characters didn’t get a meaningful ending. For many, it was abrupt while it wrapped up for others. It seemed incomplete and I wanted more than I got. After so much build-up, this was hugely disappointing.

The audiobook was narrated by Suzanne Toren and I felt she did an amazing job with the book. There were so many characters to keep track of and I thought she did a great job giving them distinct voices. Patricia and Douggie are particularly memorable. She helped me stay as engaged as I was for 22 hours.

The theme of this book was so blaring that it distracted from everything else. We, as humans, are killing the trees and poisoning the planet for temporary and financial gain. Readers were hit over the head with this time and time again. It almost felt insulting to think I hadn’t picked up not the author’s message and be reminded so often. This was ultimately what kept me from engaging with the characters. They were just there to push me to understand the message and I didn’t like being lectured.

Writer’s Takeaway: One of the biggest lessons I get from reading writing books is that you don’t want to make your readers feel like they’re being lectured or reading non-fiction when they’re reading fiction. Fiction can teach, but if that’s our goal, you should choose a different medium. I felt like Powers choice of a 22-hour book was the wrong medium for what he had to say. I lost interest early when I thought I was being lectured and I didn’t engage with the writing or characters after that.

This book lost me early and never got me back. Two out of Five Stars.

Until next time, write on.

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Related Posts:
The Overstory, by Richard Powers | Bob’s Books
THE OVERSTORY, by Richard Powers | The Pointe-Claire Public Library Blog
“The Overstory” by Richard Powers | Book Nook Book Reviews
The Overstory by Richard Powers | Book Reviews
The Overstory (Powers) | BookReviewsbyCharles

2 Responses to “Book Review: The Overstory by Richard Powers (2/5)”

  1. whatcathyreadnext April 19, 2021 at 11:31 AM #

    A great explanation of why the book didn’t work for you. And based on your review, I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work for me either or that I’d be willing to devote 22 hours of listening time!


    • Sam April 19, 2021 at 1:37 PM #

      The length was a big factor. I might try another book by Powers, provided it’s shorter and not a lecture. Happy reading!


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