The Roots of the Olive Tree, by Courtney Miller Santo, introduces readers to five generations of remarkable, complex women, each with secrets and desires which cause them to alternately rub one other the wrong way, hold one another’s hand, and have one another’s back. The matriarch of the family, Anna, is a 112 year old supercentarian who oversees the family olive farm. Over the decades, her wisdom has sharpened rather than weathered, and she remains as spry in body as in mind. A geneticist is invited by Anna’s granddaughter to literally draw the blood of five generations of Keller women, all in the hope of discovering what it is that makes Anna and her female progeny remain youthful. While this particular granddaughter seeks a degree of fame for her family through this research, some of her female relatives worry that, when all is said and done, what they will seek is not renown, but forgiveness. After all, DNA can be a harsh revelator of long-held family secrets. Debut author Santo invites us into the hearts and minds of each of these five dynamic women, devoting elegantly crafted sections to each of their points of view, so that, by the turn of the last page, we feel each of their heartbeats as our own and find comfort in our own willingness to forgive them their trespasses. It is a reminder that women who are mothers and daughters are also sisters sharing life’s journey.
The Roots of the Olive Tree is a fine piece of women’s fiction and I recommend it to readers who enjoy novels with depth. But you should know, this is not a romance, though there is a certain amount of courtship and love-making. This is not a mystery, though secrets are both concocted and exposed. It is not a book of crime fiction, though wrong-doings–including murder–are woven into the fabric. This is a slice of life. Of reality. The prose is delightful, and whether you like to read your fiction poolside with a cool one or in your den with a highlighter in hand, you will find pleasure in The Roots of the Olive Tree.
Of course, the novel isn’t going to be a perfect match for everyone. No novel is. That’s obvious. I’m a baseball fan and baseball fans know the thrill of seeing a player hit a power-alley home run, that hard, straight shot over the fence in the deepest parts of the outfield. Maybe The Roots of the Olive Tree isn’t a power-alley home run. For me, it was more like the home run that hugs the line, the one that makes you catch your breath and hope that the ball stays fair. That moment when it lands in the stands just inside of the foul post is glorious. There were places in the novel where I worried the ball, though solidly hit, might not land where Santo wanted it to. For instance, there are oddly placed inserts from the geneticist’s storyline that seemed not only distracting, but which border on inconsequential. But those were only moments–a paragraph or page here or there–and they were few and far between. To be fair, none of these passages are long enough drag down the overall story. They are limiting like a scratch on the knee, not a broken leg.
I have read a couple reviews (out of many, many glowing reviews) that seem to indicate the respective reviewers struggled with the character development. I admit early on I found it difficult to keep track of which of the five related women were which. Without being able to do that, it can be difficult to see each character as an individual. My feeling is that a reader ought to cut a writer a little slack when she has five characters onstage in the opening pages, all of the same gender; the writer needs some time to exercise her craft and reveal each character as a separate persona. And Santo does, indeed, craft her characters as individuals with their own needs, passions, and yes, quirks. But it is the writer’s job to craft with clarity. There is a diagram explaining which character is which before the opening pages, but I didn’t notice it until I sat to write this review. I wouldn’t have used it anyway, since I find them annoying and I don’t think I’m alone in that. It wasn’t until I was about two-thirds of the way through the novel that I realized Santo has developed a sort of cheat system regarding names that can help her readers keep everyone straight while she develops her characters. The names of these women are alphabetical in an age-descending order: A for Anna (the eldest), B for Bets, C for Callie, D for Deb and lastly E for Erin, the youngest. A, B, C, D, E: oldest to youngest. Simple. Knowing this at the outset will help you keep the women straight, and keeping them “in their place” will likely clarify issues a given reader may have with character development. Maybe I’m being simplistic, but I’m trying to understand an opinion I don’t share. It might have been nice if there had been a nod to this little piece of information in the text of the early parts of the book, but, if it had been there, some might’ve thought it ridiculously obvious.
The only significant writerly choice I wonder about pertains to Anna. When secrets from her past are made plain (and I don’t want to give anything away here), she states that she needs to plan a trip, ostensibly to uncover more truths, to find more clarity regarding her identity. I, then, expected her not only to plan, but to go on that trip. It didn’t happen. In fact, that trip was never mentioned again, nor were the discoveries that seemed likely to be waiting for Anna there. It was a let-down, I admit, especially when the very next page began a chapter titled “Leaving,” but that “leaving” referred to another character. Perhaps there will be a sequel? I might have considered this a bigger faux pas than I now do had the novel, which was 90% completed by this point, landed on the wrong side of the foul post. But it didn’t. With the ending, Santo clearly got her home run.
The ending of The Roots of the Olive Tree was poignant and poetic and satisfying. The literary nerd in me ached to grab a pen and begin underlining images and ideas that held meaning beyond the surface. I wanted to cheer for Anna, Bets, Callie, Deb and Erin. But I also wanted to cheer Santo. She’s done a fantastic job with her debut novel. In fact, her imagery, her characters, her setting all seemed like a movie in my mind. As I read along, I kept casting actresses in a fantasy film version. Truly, if you like women’s fiction with a slice of the literary, read The Roots of the Olive Tree.
Disclosure: I count Courtney Miller Santo, author of The Roots of the Olive Tree, as a friend, though we’ve never met in person. Our friendship began several years back when each of us participated in the now defunct online writer’s workshop known as WorLDSmith. Her short fiction then surfaced anonymously as a finalist in an Irreantum contest and, before I knew it, I was editing her first published literary short fiction. That’s something I’ll probably brag about for years to come. I know Santo to be a writer with incredible instinct and I was tickled to watch her manuscript, The Roots of the Olive Tree, move through round after round of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition. If ever there was proof that failing to place first does not a loser make, it is Santo. Her manuscript was passed over late in the contest, only to be picked up by a very smart agent. It is true that I was pre-disposed to like her debut novel because of our relationship, but I’ve made every effort to be objective with this review. In fact, its more likely I’m being overly harsh about its soft spots than overstated about its strengths. Its a solid book, worthy of a reader’s time. Of course, the version I’ve read may be slightly different from the novel in final, published form. The Roots of the Olive Tree will be available in bookstores August 21. Until then, you may pre-order your copy at http://www.amazon.com/The-Roots-Olive-Tree-Novel/dp/006213051X