For most people, a long and healthy life is a primary objective. Longevity has been so sought-after throughout history that it has inspired ancient herbalism, magic, modern science and research. Is the key to a long life diet and exercise? Genetics? Or perhaps something intangible and random? These questions pose a starting point for Courtney Miller Santo’s moving debut, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE. But while the mystery of what allows some people to live well past 100 years old is important to the novel, it only serves as the backdrop to this story of five generations of women who are all damaged in some way yet remain strong and resilient.
"Santo’s power is in description and word choice, and this is where she truly shines. Overall, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE is an ambitious and compelling novel, which will have readers thinking about the powers of olives and their oil long after the reading is finished."
At 112 years old, Anna Keller is the matriarch of the family and of the small California town of Kidron, where she has lived ever since leaving her native Australia at the age of four. Her whole life has been lived among her family’s olive orchard, surrounded by the fruit and its oil. The mother of four sons, Anna now lives with her only daughter, Bets (or Elizabeth, as she prefers to be known) who is almost 90 years old herself. She too has four sons and a daughter named Callie, a vivacious and passionate woman in her 60s, who lives with Anna and Bets at Hill House, running the business she opened with her husband years ago.
Callie’s relationship with her mother is less than perfect, but is better than her relationship with her daughter, Deb, who is imprisoned for murder. Lastly, we meet Deb’s only daughter, Erin, a young opera singer. For years, all five women have chosen allies and enemies amongst themselves --- nursing hurts, keeping secrets, and loving with all their hearts. But a series of events threatens to upset the delicate balance at Hill House and the emotional delicacy of the Keller women.
First, a geneticist discovers the family and begins studying them to try to unlock the scientific key, not only to Anna's and Bets’ long lifespans but also to their apparently slowed aging process. His interest in Callie, though, may not be purely scientific in nature. Next, Erin returns to Hill House from Italy pregnant and alone. And finally, Deb, after serving 20 years for killing Erin’s father, is paroled from prison. As the months go by, readers learn more about the family’s history, its joys and heartbreaks. We, along with the Keller women, begin to understand the secrets that have both haunted and buoyed them over the years.
The book is divided into five sections, each told from the perspective of one of the five women. We find Anna to be a sympathetic character; though old-fashioned, she has lived an exciting and sometimes heartbreaking life. The key to Dr. Hashmi’s research may lie in understanding her history before she left Australia. But Anna’s background is only one of the potentially dramatic themes Santo introduces. Bets, seemingly close-minded and rigid, has a secret that could further destroy family harmony, and Callie is addicted to pain killers after an accident (which is never fully detailed) many decades earlier. Deb clearly has emotional problems, culminating in extreme violence, which in turn was witnessed by Erin when she was very young.
Although Santo gives us plenty of insight into the emotional lives of the characters, there is not much resolution of the issues she introduces. The book’s climax is not the spectacular showstopper readers may hope for, not all of the subplots are resolved, and not all of the ideas are fully examined. Santo’s characters are finely drawn, but it can be a bit difficult to keep the five women (not to mention their personal backstories, spouses and other children) distinct while reading. Occasionally, complicated plot lines and rich characters become too confusing, despite the fact that they are named in alphabetical order.
Santo’s power is in description and word choice, and this is where she truly shines. Overall, THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE is an ambitious and compelling novel, which will have readers thinking about the powers of olives and their oil long after the reading is finished.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on August 24, 2012