book review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

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THE OVERSTORY by Richard Powers
★★★☆☆
W.W. Norton, 2018

 

The Overstory is undeniably brilliant, but it’s also hard work, and I’m not convinced the payoff was worth the effort. I wanted to be able to say that I was so struck by Powers’ genius that I was able to forgive the periods of abject tedium that characterized my reading experience, but that would be a lie. This is undoubtedly a fantastic book, but I don’t think I was the right reader for it.

Here I have to echo a sentiment that I expressed in my review of Lab Girl by Hope Jahren: there are only so many loving descriptions of trees a person can take after a while. What I’m interested in when I read is conflict and human interest and interpersonal dynamics, and when none of that is at the forefront of a book, I’m inevitably going to struggle with it.

While Richard Powers did create a host of distinct characters in The Overstory – the first section of the novel is eight different short stories, one following each of the main characters through defining moments in their early lives – it soon becomes apparent that their stories aren’t the ones that Powers is interested in telling. I had more than a few moments when I had to wonder why Powers chose to write this as a novel at all, when it would have arguably served its purpose just as well as a treatise on environmental activism.

Powers is a hell of a writer though, I’ll give him that. I can’t bear to go lower than 3 stars in my final rating because I can’t deny the admiration I feel toward Powers’ craft. On a sentence-by-sentence level, I lost track of the amount of times I paused and reread a particularly striking passage, and the amount of detail that Powers is able to pack into every page is incredibly impressive. And on a larger level, the thematic complexity that Powers is able to achieve with his anthropomorphic symbolism and thorough examination of disparate disciplines and philosophies is undeniable. When words like ‘epic’ and ‘masterpiece’ are being thrown around in conversation with this novel, it’s not difficult to understand why.

But at the same time, I’m just not convinced that it was all necessary. I don’t believe that this book is able to justify its length of 500 (very long) pages. It’s punishingly dense and bloated; I found certain characters to be extraneous and a lot of the detail to be superfluous. But it’s also punctuated by moments of such beauty that make it a worthwhile read, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this wins the Man Booker, but on a personal level, I can’t say this was my favorite reading experience I’ve ever had.

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure
The Mars Room | Snap | Milkman
Everything UnderIn Our Mad and Furious City
WarlightNormal PeopleSabrina

18 thoughts on “book review: The Overstory by Richard Powers

    • I made it!

      I am SO conflicted about what I’m going to choose for my winner prediction. Based on the books alone it’s The Overstory 100%. But I can’t ignore the fact that an American man has won the past two years, and a woman hasn’t won since 2014, and it seems impossible that the judges aren’t even going to consider the decision from an optics standpoint.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, good point. And the Brits HAVE been grumbling about the Man Booker going to US-Americans the last two years. I mean, my heart would burst if Daisy Johnson won – but I just don’t see that happening. Then again, I just haven’t read enough of the shortlist to comfortably predict anything.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! If it were any nationality other than American I don’t think it would be a very big factor, but the Brits may have a collective aneurysm if 3 Americans win in a row… From an optics standpoint obviously Washington Black would be the best choice (non-American black female author) but I’m not convinced it’s the same literary calibre as the rest? I will be so very happy if Milkman wins. It’s just so tricky trying to figure out which factors judges are going to consider.

        Liked by 1 person

      • The shortlist just isn’t very strong, is it? As much as I enjoyed the two books that I’ve read of it, they are definitely not the best books I read this year and I find the whole list a bit underwhelming.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m also very underwhelmed by it. I mean, the one I’m currently rooting for I only gave 4 stars. Though I have heard excellent things about The Long Take which will be my final one. It still blows my mind that Furious City, Low and Quiet Sea, and Normal People were all snubbed. The longlist was so promising.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yes! I am very excited. I decided to save it for last because it was either that or Washington Black and I wanted to end on a high note. (I am not loving Washington Black, to no one’s surprise.)

        Liked by 1 person

  1. Congrats on making it through this one! It looks immense. Hearing such good things about Powers’ writing makes me a little more enthused to pick this one up, though the tree descriptions do not. As much as I love atmosphere in a book, setting/landscape/nature description doesn’t usually do much for me. :/ I am more of a nature person than a city person though irl, so I’m hopeful that the environmental themes will resonate with me enough to help me through all the trees. I’m glad it seems to have balanced out for you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I am so relieved to be done! This book was just SUCH a mixed bag all around. I don’t think you’ll despise it/regret reading it at all, but those tree descriptions…. maybe it’s because I live in the mountains in the middle of the woods, but nature writing just doesn’t do it for me AT ALL. I like nature but I think I get enough of it? And atmospheric is one thing; 500 pages of trees is another. I’ll be very interested in hearing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. […] 9. The Overstory by Richard Powers** shortlisted Quick summary: Nine disparate narratives are eventually connected into a thematic treatise on environmentalism. Quick review: While Powers’ prose is gorgeous and his ideas are rich and stimulating, The Overstory meanders along and never quite justifies its length, or its choice to be written as a novel rather than a nonfiction essay on the same subject. Full review HERE ★★★☆☆ […]

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