What I Don't Know Yet

Trees play lead in The Overstory; Goddess makes good in Circe; plus Almost Love is almost tolerable

The Overstory
Jenni Laidman 
May 7, 2018

“The Overstory” by Richard Powers, narrated by Suzanne Toren, 22 hours, 58 minutes

Suzanne Toren’s narration dazzles as it conveys the voice of a Hui Chinese man who speaks English with a British accent as well as the uncertain croak of his son, who barely speaks English at all; in the tones of Dr. Patricia Westerford who has a hearing loss; and, especially, in the many long passages of “The Overstory” in which National Book Award-winner Richard Powers spins a world of trees as compelling characters. These are mystical, restless, quiet conversationalists, talking to one another, talking to the world. Toren, with nearly 400 titles to her name and several awards for narration, can sound like prophetess of trees. In an otherwise perfect narration, she stumbles only briefly when male characters converse with voices that are indistinguishable from one another.

The book begins like a short story collection and then gradually branches and spreads in the complex way of its main preoccupation. Characters are introduced by the trees in their lives. Nicholas Hoel’s forefathers plant an American chestnut in Iowa. Mimi Ma’s father plants a mulberry tree like the one in an ancient jade ring from his father. Adam Appich’s family plants a different tree for each child. A tree in Vietnam saves Douglas Pavlicek’s life. Dr. Westerford, aka “Plant Patty,” grows up in love with trees but nearly loses her way when her scientific discoveries about communication among trees are ridiculed until they are celebrated. This wildly ranging tale with nine major characters covers centuries. Powers never gets preachy as he keeps returning to its single theme: the importance of trees.

“Circe” by Madeline Miller, narrated by Perdita Weeks, Hachette, 12:08

British actress Perdita Weeks makes a fine goddess in her first audiobook narration, “Circe,” by Madeline Miller. “Circe” is Miller’s second novel — her first was “The Song of Achilles” — and she makes these ancient stories come alive until the obsidian halls of the titan Helios seems like a particularly cruel high school that, unfortunately for the immortal Circe, goes on forever. Circe’s story feels familiar, not just because we’ve heard the Greek tale before: She’s the poor little rich girl, the unattractive and unpopular one who doesn’t understand the social conventions of her surroundings. And like every high school outcast, she is beginning realize she’s not like all those other gods and the pretty nymphs. She feels pity for others, even humans. And she can do magic. It is this witchcraft that leads to her exile on the island Aiaia. Out of love, she turned a mortal into a god. Then, out of jealousy, she turned the object of the new god’s affection, Scylla, into a six-headed beast.

If Circe is tested by her new island solitude, so is the narrator. There’s no conversation or action here, just discovery. And neither Weeks nor Circe falters. Weeks imbues even the small moments with the sense of wonder they deserve. It is no surprise when, later, the narrator is every bit as effective when Circe must face Scylla again, this time hoping to protect a ship full of mortals from the sword-long teeth of the monster she made.

“Almost Love” by Louise O’Neill, narrated by Aoife McMahon, Riverrun, 7:12

There’s a literary tradition in which a main character does one foolish and predictable thing after another until his life is irredeemable chaos. Theodore Dreiser’s “An American Tragedy,” Thomas Hardy’s “Mayor of Casterbridge,” and Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” all feature the inevitable weight of bad judgment heaped upon bad judgment. In “Almost Love,” Louise O’Neill’s third novel — her first for adults— the shortsighted character is a recent art school graduate named Sarah Fitzgerald. Aoife McMahon, the narrator of two dozen audiobooks, voices Sarah unflinchingly, which made me wonder if she found herself constantly annoyed while embodying this self-involved, self-pitying young woman.

Beautiful Sarah has an affair with a wealthy man 20 years her senior. Why she likes him is puzzling. He won’t see her in public. The sex is unsatisfying and even demeaning. And when her friends try to help her — although, remarkably, no one ever suggests therapy — she treats them with casual cruelty. Sarah isn’t evil, which might have made her interesting. She’s just blind. Her behavior only worsens as the minutes tick by, and I was often tempted to stop listening. Yet I pressed on, anticipating the flaming mess surely waiting her at the end. After seven hours of loathing a character, it’s hard not to look forward to her comeuppance. And then — here’s the spoiler — O’Neill blinks. All that bad behavior ends with warmth and hope, and O’Neill’s “Almost Love” is only almost a novel for adults.

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