Review: The Forbidden Orchid by Sharon Biggs Waller

Thursday, March 3, 2016
Title: The Forbidden Orchid
Author: Sharon Biggs Waller
Genre: historical fiction
Series: N/A
Pages: 432
Published: expected March 8 2016
Source: received for review
Rating: 3/5

Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls' father is a plant hunter, usually off adventuring through the jungles of China.

Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan fails to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid, meaning that he will be thrown into debtors' prison and the girls will be sent to the orphanage or the poorhouse. Elodie's father has one last chance to return to China, find the orchid, and save the family—and this time, thanks to an unforeseen twist of fate, Elodie is going with him. Elodie has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China.

But even if she can find the orchid, how can she find herself now that staid, responsible Elodie has seen how much the world has to offer?

The Forbidden Orchid is a solid but rather long novel; Waller's style is distinctive and lends well to complicated narratives. The author obviously did her research before writing this international flower hunt of a story; this is a book rife with detail and dense with description for England but especially for how Elodie experiences life in China. Occasionally the novel does move at an uneven pace, but for the most part this adventure with Elodie, Alex, and her father was a unique perspective used in an original, if not the most substantial, historical plot.

I liked this novel but Elodie was hard to work with as a main character at times. I loved aspects about her personality (when she laughed about hearing what the orchid was forbidden charmed me) but her overall characterization is rather blunt, and the case is the same for her only sister to really speak on the page (Violetta, one out of seven sisters...). She isn't boring and she is not stereotypical, but she also felt wooden and remote from the reader. I had a hard time investing in the romantic relationship because it progresses so quickly between the two  -- besides the need for a ruse, the real confessions of emotion felt manufactured rather than organic.

The plot at the heart of The Forbidden Orchid is outlandish enough to seem implausible at first glance, but this mad pursuit of flowers is instead wholly believable and based in fact, somewhat like the tulip craze of two hundred years before the events of this book. Victorians like Elodie's father, would go to extreme lengths to collect, grow, showoff these status symbols. The struggles between England and China over exports and control, both legal and not legal, factors cleverly into the other plots going on and help to push the story along. The book, however, is often quite slow. The detail and description are wonderfully researched and rendered, but there is also an occasional tendency to overload the narrative.

The Forbidden Orchid is ultimately a bit too long, but the author knows how to end her story well. The book felt finished and the plotlines were wrapped up with satisfaction, and were not too predictable. Historical fiction fans who love defying convention and lots of description would likely find this a new favorite read. The atmosphere is enveloping, and the research that went into creating this novel is noticeable.

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