THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE by Courtney Miller Santo


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Five generations of unusually long-lived women have family troubles in Santo’s oddly static debut.

With fourth-generation Deborah just paroled after 20 years in jail for killing her husband, and her daughter Erin about to have a child with no husband in sight, not to mention matriarch Anna (age 112) only one death away from being the oldest person in the world, there ought to be more excitement in the house they share overlooking their olive groves in northern California. Instead, there’s simmering resentment and whiny adolescent complaining, which sounds especially self-indulgent coming from 42-year-old Deborah. Granted, her mother, Callie, is thoroughly nasty almost all the time, despite the painkillers she constantly pops for a leg crippled in a bizarre accident, which the author refers to in frustrating fragments over more than 200 pages before finally deigning to tell us exactly what happened. Deborah’s violent quarrel with Callie in the hospital where Erin is giving birth is the novel’s only truly dramatic scene; the fact that Deborah then jumps parole, disappears and is barely ever referred to again is regrettably typical of Santo’s clumsy handling of plot and character. Amrit Hashmi, the geneticist who comes to study Anna and her descendants in the hope of discovering the secret of their longevity, at first seems like something of a nut, judging by a Washington Post column jarringly inserted in the text. Amorous emails exchanged between him and Callie do little to improve our opinion of either, though we’re later invited to think of their affair as a life-changing event. Other events that seem to merit attention, such as the birth of Erin’s son breaking the line of four firstborn daughters, are not commented on at all. Transcripts of news videotape and a closing folktale are other examples of the author’s failure to maintain coherent structure, pacing or tone.

Some nice descriptions of the olive groves, but this is too scattershot to make for emotionally satisfying fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 21st, 2012
ISBN: 978-0-06-213051-8
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2012


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