Wednesday, May 15, 2019

It’s Not Easy Writing a Bad Review of a Good Book

I was already reading The Overstory by Richard Powers (W. W. Norton & Company, April 2018) when it was announced that the novel had won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I was reading the book but I wasn’t enjoying it. But, seeing that it had just won a literary award, I was determined to read until the end and see if I could understand why it had won the prize.

After finishing the book, I wasn’t sure whether I would write a review of The Overstory. I hesitated, not wanting to write a bad review because as an author, I know what it’s like to be on the receiving end of criticism, if it’s not constructive. But the whole point of book reviews is to help a reader decide whether to read a book or not. To let a reader know what they are getting into. So as a service to readers, I will list a few of my impressions of this Pulitzer-winning novel.

First of all, the book is long. The paperback version is 512 pages. When reading it in Kindle, the percentage indicating how much you’ve read never seems to go up. The author has a point to make, and it’s an important one no doubt, but he could have made it quite effectively in much fewer words.

Speaking of words, the author has a very rich vocabulary. He knows a lot of about trees and he knows a lot of words about trees. Too many. Even if you are a crossword puzzle fanatic or a professional Scrabble player, you will still struggle reading words like these:

* coprophagic
* mycorrhizal
* involucres
* krummolz

It is possible to skim over the words you don’t understand but the vocabulary was not my main problem with the book. There are nine main characters in the story and I found that I couldn’t connect to many of them. All of their lives revolved around trees, and the need to save the environment, but not all of them were essential to the plot. In hindsight, I can’t even remember most of them. Disturbingly, in one chapter the characters’ names changed from one paragraph to the next.


Interesting things take place in the book that will certainly stick in one’s mind, but other story lines seem placed there for no reason.

The author tells us, over and over, that trees play an important role in our lives, one that is easily overlooked. Trees live, breath, communicate, and even move, and we barely see any of this. If the author’s argument is that by saving the trees we can save ourselves, it is an important one. But the author could have conveyed this message in a much shorter novel, with fewer characters, and with a less scholarly vocabulary.

I believe The Overstory is seriously overrated. It’s a good book, a well-written one, but I can’t determine exactly why it won the Pulitzer.

Richard Powers is an American author who has published twelve novels that explore the effects of modern science and technology. His novel The Echo Maker won the 2006 National Book Award for Fiction. He and has taught at the University of Illinois and Stanford Universities. He won the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Overstory.

Original tree image by Casey Horner on Unsplash.

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