Title: The Forbidden Orchid
Author: Sharon Biggs Waller
Genre: YA Historical Fiction
Release Date: March 8th 2016 from Viking
Narrator: Katherine McEwan
Listening Time: 12 hours, 17 mins
Goodreads Synopsis: Staid, responsible Elodie Buchanan is the eldest of ten sisters living in a small English market town in 1861. The girls barely know their father, a plant hunter usually off adventuring through China. Then disaster strikes: Mr. Buchanan reneges on his contract to collect an extremely rare and valuable orchid. He will be thrown into debtors’ prison while his daughters are sent to the orphanage and the workhouse.
Elodie can’t stand by and see her family destroyed, so she persuades her father to return to China once more to try to hunt down the flower—only this time, despite everything she knows about her place in society, Elodie goes with him. She has never before left her village, but what starts as fear turns to wonder as she adapts to seafaring life aboard the tea clipper The Osprey, and later to the new sights, dangers, and romance of China. But now, even if she can find the orchid, how can she ever go back to being the staid, responsible Elodie that everybody needs?
I randomly borrowed this audio book from my library Overdrive, especially after seeing the interesting synopsis and that Katherine McEwan narrated it. I normally am not a big fan of books set in England during the 1800’s because they usually feel like the same story. But this unique synopsis about plant hunting and going to China sounded very different, so I gave it a chance. Ultimately, this was a worthy choice to listen to on audio. Here’s the break down of the book:
- Narration: Of course, McEwan is such a wonderful narrator. She has narrated books like Tess of the Road, the Ember in the Ashes series (Helene) and many other books. She has a great balance of frustration, longing and emotion of Elodie in this audio. Never once does she sound bored reading this book and her accents were good enough to show distinct character voices. I can’t picture anyone else reading this book, since I kept seeing Elodie every time I listened 🙂
- Setting: The setting of England for most of the book feels authentic and very well done. Many of the customs, dialogue and side characters remind me of many BBC period pieces and Jane Austen movie adaptations. Waller truly did her research to bring the English characters and setting to life. Then, when going to China, I do think it was a little underdeveloped. While there are mentions of Chinese customs, animals, clothing and some history, the description of the nature in China wasn’t as satisfying as I’d hoped. It didn’t feel as rich as exotic as we know China is for many people who haven’t been there.
- Characters: Let’s start with the female protagonist Elodie. For most of the book, she is a girl of a large family composed of her mother, plant hunter father and nine other sisters. She takes care of her mother, wants to protect her family and still speaks her mind despite living in a time where men didn’t want to hear women’s opinions. She is observant and will do anything to make sure her family doesn’t lose everything to her father’s debt. While she does learn a few things on her journey to China, she did digress for me in the end. She ended up still being very stubborn, kind of rude and judgy towards others. I don’t think she treated her love interest very well by the end which felt like a big step backwards for her. However, some of the side characters really stood out for me. Alex, her love interest, is a Russian orphan that she meets and he was a great guy! He was caring, knowledgeable and did all he could to help her. His past was a sad and shocking but it did help fill in his character very well. Her father is also a very interesting character that luckily got some great moments to develop him. I was worried that he would only remain the distant, estranged father that would never try to truly help his family. But the author really surprised me with how his development and he became one of my favorite characters. The final character I want to mention is a Chinese girl named Ching-Lan (I apologize if the name is written correctly). She is one of Alex’s friend that they run into in China. She truly captured what I know of Chinese culture and I wish she had a more prominent role since her honesty and personality was wonderful! So while the Elodie ended up disappointing me, the other characters shone through.
- Plot/Pacing: Now I will say right off is that the pacing is slower than I anticipated. Many GR reviews do say that it takes a while to get to China and that is correct. But I still enjoyed the majority of the book still set in England because of the family dynamics and the things you learn along the way. Then the last 30% or so does suddenly pick up with action and intense moments, which can throw people off a little bit. I was hoping that some events happened a bit earlier and some small parts in the middle had sped up or been cut. But regardless, I loved the overall plot of plant hunting. This is an occupation I knew nothing about and I learned a lot about some Chinese history and about the different plants. This idea was so unique to historical fiction that I kept listening and gaining more interest as the plot went along. The plot stayed true to the synopsis and if you like historical fiction and are looking for ones with unique plot ideas, try this one. The author also has a few author notes at the end, explaining what was based on true events or about famous plant hunters and such.
- Writing: The writing style was another highlight to this story for me. Since I did listen to it on audio, I still think that the writing was so well done. The author never sugarcoated the tougher topics that are brought up and she keeps Elodie and many other characters mature and strong and blunt when they needed to be. I loved that the author kept things true to the story and never added any unnecessary subplots or tropes like most YA tends to do for me. I am definitely gonna read another book by her since her writing is polished and authentic.
Overall: I truly enjoyed so much of this book at first. While the main character digressed for me, minor pacing issues and the romance not being as satisfying, I still recommend this book. The narration is perfect and the plot about plant hunting and the adventure to China is very fun and the writing is polished and mature. **NOTE: I don’t recommend this book for teens under 15 since it does deal with drug use (opium), a sexual situation involving a child and other dark moments in Chinese history.** But if you really enjoy historical fiction, this is a good one to check out 🙂
Rating: .5 stars
Have you read this book? Does this sound like an interesting book to you? What other historical fiction books do you recommend that visit another country?