Published by Viking Juvenile on March 8th, 2016
Genres: Young Adult, Historical Fiction, Romance
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?
Two years ago I fell completely head over heels for Sharon Biggs Waller’s debut, A Mad, Wicked Folly. So the fact that I would pick up The Forbidden Orchid was kind of self-evident. Though well-researched and an interesting exposition of the setting, I didn’t feel like this book quite lived up to my expectations.
The Forbidden Orchid is kind of an adventure story in China right around the end of the Second Opium War. It starts in Victorian England, where Elodie, in an effort to save her family, eventually sneaks onto a tea clipper to accompany her father to China. Her father is a plant hunter, and he owes a large debt of his secret and rare orchids. Their adventures take them all the way into the heart of China, through the wilderness and the starkly foreign culture.
Did that summary sound kind of … blah? Well yeah. The thing is, I feel like this book taught me a lot. I didn’t know much about the Opium Wars, and some of the horrors that occurred there. I didn’t know that plant hunting was actually a thing, and how intense of a competition it became between different companies and hunters. And all of these things were spectacularly researched, the proof of which is shown in the extensive author’s notes at the end and the bibliography. So in that sense, this book definitely was enlightening.
But I’m a fiction reader. And the fictional story around it lacked heart. It was slow. It dragged. It was a lot of explanations and build up while the climax wasn’t particularly heartrending. The characters were okay but not overly remarkable. The writing is good, though not as sweeping and beautifully artistic as it was in A Mad, Wicked Folly. And the romance, which held a lot of promise at first, fizzled out halfway through.
There are things Waller does well. She always lets her feminist spirit shine through her stories, and I loved how strong Elodie was in certain ways. She risked her reputation being absolutely ruined by sneaking on the ship, hid in Alex’s cabin despite knowing what would happen if she was caught, and even dressed up as a boy, abandoning all of the female graces and values she was taught. When it gets tough, and she is challenged to hard labor and a kind of “hazing” on board, she does not back down for a second, because it’s all in service to helping her father and saving her family. Even though in this time period, women weren’t permitted to do much of anything, Elodie finds ways around the restrictions because she knows her value. At the end of the day, I will always respect that.
I think I’m most sad, though, about how that romance fizzled out. Seriously, it started off so great. Alex is a hot, humorous, and caring sailor. When he discovers Elodie on the ship, he takes her in to protect her. And THEY END UP SHARING A BED, because obviously that’s the best place for her to hide. That’s such an excellent trope that should lead to the best swoons ever. Well, then… it didn’t. When Elodie is revealed, things happen that should have enhanced the swoon factor, but instead were needlessly complicated by a lack of communication. I hate it so much when characters both have feelings but just don’t admit it and therefore think that the other is only acting the way they are because of the circumstances they’re in. Yeah. Thanks for killing all the swoon. SO SAD.