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The Roots of the Olive Tree by Courtney Miller Santo

This is Courtney Miller Santo's debut novel.  Put simply this book tells the story of a family of 'superagers.'  A superager is someone who has longer than average longevity.  An example would be someone whose chronological age is 100 while their biological age is that of someone in their 60's.

The Keller women are five generations of first born daughters most of whom have long outlived husbands, children and friends.  Anna's the 112 year old matriarch; she lives with her daughter Bets and Bets' daughter Callie in a house on the family's beloved olive orchard.  Callie's daughter Deb is in prison, but is up for parole.  Deb's daughter Erin's unexpected and sudden homecoming coincides with the arrival of a geneticist who hopes to study these women in order to unlock the secret of aging.  Erin, who's returned home pregnant, is determined to aid her mother in her bid for parole.

The story shifts perspective as time moves along in the book.  It starts with Anna's perspective in which we learn how her parents came to California and started the olive orchard.  Then it shifts to the perspectives of her daughter and granddaughters.  In each part we learn a little more about the history of this family, their secrets, and their relationships--but really only a little.

Even though these women share the same family and the same house, there are fault lines and divisive cracks in their relationships, estrangements and distances between mother and daughter.  Complicated personalities and histories are mitigated by the privacies and secrets and suspicions each woman holds close and dear to her heart and hidden away from the others.  One can't help but wonder what Deb's homecoming and the birth of Erin's baby, the sixth generation in this remarkable family, will do to the delicate dynamics of the family.  Are they headed for more heartbreak, tragedy and disaster?  Or will the broken pieces finally be healed?

Ultimately this is a quick read of a family drama.  This is the type of book in which it feels as if not much happens even though a lot actually does happen if that makes sense.  This feeling is due in part to the characters' development--we only get in depth depiction of a certain character within that character's perspective section.  Even then it still feels as if not a lot is revealed of the character's feelings, motivations or relationships with other characters.  The family dynamics are given only a surface level portrayal.  These women keep secrets from each other and there's great difficulty and often strain in the relationships between mother and daughter but why are these relationships strained and in what ways?  The lack of illumination, development and elaboration of the various histories of the relationships fails to tell us these answers.  The narrative structure of the book also handicaps any in depth examination of the relationships as well.

--Reviewed by Ms. Angie


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