This is an odd one. I would describe it as environmental fiction with a touch of magical realism and real-life science. The first third or so of the novel follows several different characters through their lives. Each person’s introduction is like a short story or vignette. We learn about the person and their family, perhaps see that they have some connection to nature, and then we go to the next person’s story. Some stories span multiple generations, and it is their descendants that become the main characters. Whatever the case, the main characters that come out of the vignettes eventually link up together in some way by the end. Each character has their own skills, ideals, and histories that lead them to fight for old growth forests that are being chopped down at an alarming rate. There’s an engineer, a reborn prophetess, an artist, actors, a lawyer, etc. Each has a unique story and a unique way to help the natural world once they discover it.
Overall, I would say that the character development is a bit stronger than the plot, but there are a lot of main characters (9? 10?) to keep track of. As I said, in some cases, a few generations are introduced with only the final descendant(s) playing a major role in the main the plotline. I had a little trouble keeping everyone’s history, names, and motivations straight, but I also read this entirely via audiobook. While the audiobook is quite good, I think I personally would have benefitted from seeing the names of the characters in print. For some reason that tends to help me when I’m dealing with a large cast, but you may be different. Each character goes on their own almost spiritual journey. Sometimes meeting another character in the large cast is the catalyst for this change of heart toward nature, but other times it is something entirely different, and sometimes seemingly insignificant, that causes the characters to act. I’m sure this would be an excellent book to use in a book club because hours could be spent discussing and dissecting each character, their stance, and their inspiration for taking on their journey. The cast is also quite diverse, including people of different skin colors, different religions, immigrants, disabilities, and sexualities. I didn’t think that any of these aspects were overused or included just for the sake of diversity, which is always a good thing.
The plot is where I have a few critiques. I really loved the major themes in the novel, of course. There is a sense of urgency even after the last page is turned because the issues talked about in the novel are real, and mother nature does need our help. I liked that the book also seemed to be saying that no matter who you are, what you do, where you are, or how able-bodied you are, you can always find a way to help a cause you care for. The writing is also beautiful. While I wouldn’t call it overly flowery, the author’s words painted a beautiful picture of a personified natural world. The lengthy introductions to each character are so foundational to the characters’ growth and actions, but things became a little more muddled as the book went on. I felt like the plot’s direction wasn’t entirely clear. For example, perhaps 75% into the novel there is a major face off, which I thought would be the climax, but then the book goes on for another at least 100-150 pages tying up some loose ends and expands on what I thought would be the ending. A few characters not included in the major event felt a bit forgotten when we finally got back to them. During the midpoint the plot does seem to meander a bit, but it was the ending that could have been tighter in my opinion.
I feel like I can’t say too much about the book without being very wordy or explaining it in a way that probably doesn’t make sense, or worse, gives too much away. With all of that said, I gave The Overstory very close to five stars.