4 reviews

The Overstory: A Novel
by Richard Powers

Published: 2018-04-03
Hardcover : 512 pages
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Recommended to book clubs by 4 of 4 members

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018

"The best novel ever written about trees, and ...

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Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction
Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize
New York Times Bestseller
A New York Times Notable Book and a Washington Post, Time, Oprah Magazine, Newsweek, Chicago Tribune, and Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2018

"The best novel ever written about trees, and really just one of the best novels, period."?Ann Patchett

An Air Force loadmaster in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan. An artist inherits a hundred years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies, and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing- and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. These four, and five other strangers?each summoned in different ways by trees?are brought together in a last and violent stand to save the continent’s few remaining acres of virgin forest.

In his twelfth novel, National Book Award winner Richard Powers delivers a sweeping, impassioned novel 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, The Overstory 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, exploring the essential conflict on this planet: the one taking place between humans and nonhumans. 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.

The Overstory is a book for all readers who despair of humanity’s self-imposed separation from the rest of creation and who hope for the transformative, regenerating possibility of a homecoming. If the trees of this earth could speak, what would they tell us? "Listen. There’s something you need to hear."

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of April 2018: Do you love trees? I thought I did, until I read Richard Powers's The Overstory, and I realized that my appreciation of trees was lightweight at best. When one of Powers's characters goes to a small grove outside her office window to determine the tree's species, "She stands with her nose in the bark, perversely intimate. She doses herself for a long time, like a hospice patient self-administering the morphine." Trees are not exactly an addiction to the wide-ranging cast of characters--an engineer, a Vietnam vet, a college student, a videogame designer, and more—but more like a touchstone that offers tradition and destiny at once. Powers, a National Book Award and Pushcart Prize–winning author, is devious in that he first immerses the reader in the lives of his characters before delicately oxygenating his story with the devastation of Dutch elm disease, the enduring strength of the sequoia, and the communication methods trees use to warn of predators and to lure allies. The Overstory might sound a bit woo-woo—and it definitely is that, though in such a way that it inspires passion instead of eye-rolling. This gorgeously written novel will seduce you into looking more closely at not only our fellow human beings but the towering bio-kingdom that is too often merely a backdrop to our days. Perhaps, like me, you will be inspired to walk out into the night to smell the rain sweeping through the nearby evergreen trees. —Adrian Liang, Amazon Book Review


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Discussion Questions

1. The Overstory is split into four sections: Roots, Trunk, Crown, and Seeds. How do those sections reflect the thematic numerous concerns of the novel—that human development (in the micro and macro) mimics growth in the "natural world," that human beings are deeply, intimately bound to nature?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: The Hoel family keeps a photographic record of the American chestnut tree in their field. In what way does this photographic record of the tree's life mirror the family's own life?

3. Of the novel's nine opening stories, which do you find most engaging? Is that because you find the characters more compelling …or the storyline itself … or can't the two be separated?

4. What do you make of Patricia Westerford's statement:

You and the tree in your backyard come from a common ancestor. A billion and a half years ago, the two of you parted ways. But even now, after an immense journey in separate directions, that tree and you still share a quarter of your genes.

5. Westover also says, "Forests panic people. Too much going on there. Humans need a sky." Do you panic in deep forests? (Forests are different than the lovely shaded groves and glens where we love to picnic.)

6. How does the author treat eco-warriors: are they the novel's heroes? Does he seem sympathetic to their causes … or impatient with their stridency? What is your attitude toward eco-warriors, both the ones in the novel and the ones in real life?

7. Some reviewers claim that characters in The Overstory get short-shrift, that they are subsumed by the book's ideas. Others say the book's characters are convincing and invested with humanity. Which view do you agree with? Do the characters come alive for you, are they multifaceted, possessing emotional depth? Or do you see them as fairly one-dimensional, serving primarily as the embodiment of ideas?

8. Has Powers novel changed the way you look at trees? Have you previously read, for instance, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, or Annie Proulx's novel, Barkskins?

9. What might the title, Overstory, signify? What is the pun at its heart?

10. What of this observation on the part of the lawyer who turns to novels for solace but then seems to question their value?

To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one.… The world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.

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Book Club Recommendations

Loving trees.
by gazzingo (see profile) 01/26/21

Member Reviews

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by Heather W. (see profile) 08/24/22

by Whitney J. (see profile) 11/04/21

by Carol C. (see profile) 09/16/21

by Susan R. (see profile) 04/15/21

  "The Overstory:A Novel"by Maryann G. (see profile) 01/26/21

It took awhile for it to all come together but the individual character’s stories were compelling on their own. It was not a quick read but it was definitely worth the effort.

by Gabrielle S. (see profile) 12/14/20

by Beverly S. (see profile) 09/09/20

by kate g. (see profile) 09/05/20

by Daniela D. (see profile) 08/29/20

by Christina B. (see profile) 04/03/20

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