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Santo, "Roots of the Olive Tree" (reviewed by Julie Nichols) Options · View
Posted: Wednesday, August 01, 2012 8:44:22 PM

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Title: The Roots of the Olive Tree
Author: Courtney Miller Santo
Publisher: William Morrow
Genre: Fiction
Year Published: 2012
Number of Pages: 306
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-06-213051-8
Price: $24.99 paper, e-book $11.99

Reviewed by Julie Nichols for the Association for Mormon Letters

I like Courtney Miller Santo a lot, and I’ve never even met her. She’s in her mid-thirties, just finished her MFA from the University of Memphis (where she now teaches), has a husband and two children, and keeps a lively, interesting blog (http://www.courtneysanto.com/) where she talks familiarly and lovingly about all kinds of things, including but hardly limited to her patriarchal blessing, which tells her that she’ll be a second mother to many. I have the feeling it would be a pleasure to make her acquaintance and have an easy chat over a cup of herbal tea.

One of the most likable things about her is that she submitted her first novel, "The Roots of the Olive Tree," to the Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest, anticipating another rejection, where instead she (ta-da!) made it to the fifty finalists list. An agent saw it, grabbed it up, and, when it didn’t win the contest, sold it to William Morrow in a two-book, six-figure deal. And Santo is properly grateful—thrilled, in fact. I like her so much from afar that I’m thrilled for and with her. Everyone should have such success!

Here’s the praise the novel well deserves: the story is complex, the characters lively and fierce. Another reviewer has called this “women’s fiction,” which is indisputable—we have an alphabetical family circle (instead of tree) on the first page, with the oldest in this line of women Anna, at age 112, her daughter Bets (or Elizabeth) at 90, *her* daughter Callie at 66, *her* daughter Deb, at fortysomething, and *her* daughter Erin, in her twenties. The alphabetical trick helps the reader remember who’s who. Each of these women has secrets, each of them struggles. Each of them comes to terms with something in her past in the course of the novel’s unfolding.

It begins with a section from Anna’s point of view, in which the youngest of the group, Anna’s great-great-granddaughter Erin, arrives unexpectedly at Hill House, the family olive farmstead in Kidron, California. Erin, who was raised by her grandmother and great-grandmothers at Hill House, has been studying and singing in a music program in Italy; no one has expected her home. What they *are* expecting is a visit from a geneticist, a doctor researching a gene he suspects their family carries, as all have lived so long, so youthfully and healthfully. These two arrivals herald the major threads of the novel. In a nutshell: Erin’s mother, Deb, killed Erin’s father decades ago, and is now up for parole; if Deb comes home (which she does, briefly, because Erin, who is pregnant, advocates for her at her parole hearing), all kinds of buried resentments and frustrations will rise to the surface; meanwhile, Deb’s own mother, Callie, falls in love with the geneticist, who has his own ulterior motives regarding his research, and whose work uncovers further buried secrets about this family of superager women.

So there’s the skeleton of a fairly complicated plot line, and there are the characters. Interesting premises, promising action!

About two-thirds of the time, the promise comes close to being fulfilled. Remember, it’s a first novel, family-focused and women-oriented and full of drama and intrigue, so it deserves generosity and celebration. But I would be too generous if I gave it more than three and a half stars. The two threads of the plot line aren't really related (except that everyone's related). The characters come and go quickly. Though each section is told from a different daughter’s point of view and in a different season of the year, the women all have similar secrets, similar struggles, similar habits of speech and behavior. Too, they live together in the same house, marked by their ownership of the olive orchard which was the economic backbone of Kidron when the city was first established.

The family angst gets a little tiring—is Anna the oldest living person in the world? (What difference does it make, really? Anna herself is wise enough to not really care.) Does olive oil help cause the superaging? (Some of the women care, some don’t; ethical marketing seems to be a small subtheme, but not a very gripping one.) If a gene causes the superaging, is it passed from mother to daughter—and is the family lineage what it seems? Who was Anna’s mother, really? But these don't seem to be life-threatening questions; the women's lives go on, the novel continues, despite these issues, rather than because of them.

There are other questions: are/were the marriages of these women worth remembering? I got a bit lost keeping track of who was married to whom (especially since the men are peripheral, dead or in nursing homes) and why it mattered. People are brought up who are never mentioned again, as the various women remember their childhoods and youth, which memories seemed not to be clearly enough distinguished from each other. Situations arise late that aren’t hinted at, the need for them not established.

Let me be specific (and here’s a spoiler, too, so skip if you like): Bets’s husband, Frank, turns out to be gay—a nod to a current social issue, yes, but not particularly relevant to the main threads of the story, it seemed to me. Also, halfway through the book Bets becomes Elizabeth, which is confusing if you’re looking at alphabetical assistance in keeping the characters straight. Sometimes (well, a lot of the time) the characters’ reactions to what happens to them seems *over*-reactive, or anyway without the kind of nuanced motivation that would make good novelistic sense to me. And I kept seeing tense shifts and micro-editing issues that shouldn’t have occurred even in a galley.

Factuality, credibility--not issues here. The setting, Hill House, and the olive orchards, are well drawn. Geography is attended to accurately: we go to a prison, to Australia, all over the house and orchard, and don’t get lost. Santo has researched well the process of growing olives. For me, the obstacles are in the characters’ stories--too much surface matter in too little space for each character’s story to have full symbolic and emotional resonance with each others' stories.

Assuredly, a deep bow to the fact that it’s a first novel, a very lucky one, written by an extremely likable person. Kudos, Courtney Miller Santo! I suspect you can and will do even better in the future, and I’m glad you have the chance. I look forward to the second novel.

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