Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo

I have a fondness for debut novels. There's something about a feeling of discovery. A debut novel has so many possibilities. There are no preconceived notions as to what the author will tell us or how the story will unfold. Courtney Miller Santo's debut, The Roots of the Olive Tree, slowly reveals the lives of five generations of women in the Keller family, a group of women living together in a house near an olive grove in Kidron, California. No one keeps secrets from each other as women do, nor supports each other in unexpected ways. No one fights and loves as women do who are related. And, put them together in one house, and all those possibilities for secrets, and destruction, and love are magnified.

Anna Keller is 112 at the beginning of the book, and she wants to be the oldest person in the world. She lives in Hill House in the Sacramento Valley with her daughter, Bets, who is 90, and her granddaughter, Callie, who runs the family store, The Pit. Callie's daughter, Deb, is in prison for killing her husband. It's Deb's daughter, Erin, and Callie who turn the Keller world upside down that year. Erin shows up with a plan to get her mother paroled. And, Callie reaches out to a scientist who is interested in investigating this family of firstborn women, checking their genes to discover the secrets to their longevity.

The olive trees in the Keller family were grafted from trees that Anna's father brought from Australia. And, those grafted trees were important to the growth and success of the community in Kidron. And, it was similar secrets and roots that led to the longevity of the Keller women. The Roots of the Olive Tree is not just a story of women who remain healthy late in life. It's a story of family secrets, and who can keep a secret, and what secrets are important.

Most of all, The Roots of the Olive Tree is a story that shows that all women, no matter how closely related, are individuals with individual dreams and lives. Santo allows each woman to have a section of the book to tell her story, to tell of her life and fears and passions. Some of the stories are richer than others, but they combine to form a strong family history as revealed in the final chapter, an eloquent fable told by the oldest child in the sixth generation.

The women in this book are all fascinating. My personal favorite is Anna, the matriarch who presides over the family and witnesses the changes that occur in that momentous year. But, every reader may find a woman to appreciate.  The idea for Courtney Miller Santo's novel came from her own family, five living generations of females in the matriarchal line. I'll admit, it might have been a richer story if there had been more development of one woman or another. I wanted more personality from some of the women. Some characters were deeper, and more intricately created than others. But, it's not easy to bring five women to life in a book, and allow each of them to have a say.

Courtney Miller Santo's debut, The Roots of the Olive Tree, is an engrossing story that reveals how past lives influence future generations, not just genetically. Genes are just the device used to tie the story together. It's a strong, promising debut, a novel that offers hope for future living characters and future stories.

Courtney Miller Santo's website is

The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo. William Morrow. 2012. ISBN 9780062130518 (hardcover), 308p.

FTC Full Disclosure - The publisher sent me a copy of the book, hoping I would review it.


bermudaonion said...

I finished this book yesterday and I thought it was okay. I thought the ending was weak and it would have been better if it had been told in the first person.

Lesa said...

I agree, Karen. That's why I said I would have liked to have seen some deeper exploration of the characters. I liked seeing the last chapter by Erin's child, though. Even so, it felt as if Deb's story was just sort of dropped.

Carol N Wong said...

I loved most of this book.
I love to read generational books, especially when you get to learn a little bit extra like about olives and olive tree care.


Jane R said...

I have seen this book mentioned on several web sites and it has caught my eye. I love your comment about debut books. It's sort of like venturing into uncharted territory. You never know what kind of adventure you'll have. Since there is an olive oil company in our area, this might be particularly interesting and it's been awhile since I've read a book that follows several generations. Thanks for the review!

Lesa said...

Interesting, Carol, that you said most of the book. It does seem as if there was some emotion missing. I don't know what part you didn't like, but that's interesting.

Lesa said...

There's been quite a bit of buzz about this book, Jane, and it does have a beautiful cover, so it catches the eye. If you give it a try, let me know what you thought.

Karen C said...

I enjoy debut novels, too. Even with your review, I don't think it's going to make my TBR list.

Lesa said...

As you can tell, Karen, everyone wasn't enthusiastic about this book. Too many good books out there to add one to your TBR pile if it doesn't fit.

Anonymous said...

This book is so slow moving, its hard for me to keep plugging. My library is doing it for the August book club. I agree that there feels like a lack of emotional development of the characters. I don't feel connected to any of them.