Book review: 'Roots of the Olive Tree' studies the lives of five generations of women

By Rosemarie Howard

For the Deseret News

Published: Saturday, Aug. 25 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

"THE ROOTS OF THE OLIVE TREE," by Courtney Miller Santo, William Morrow publishers, $25.99, 308 pages (f)

Courtney Miller Santo’s first novel “The Roots of the Olive Tree” details the lives of five generations of firstborn women who share not only their lives but the same house, Hill House, that overlooks the family olive orchard.

Anna, the 112-year-old matriarch, wants to be recognized as the oldest woman in the world. Her 90-year-old daughter, Bets, has a husband who struggles with homosexual feelings, has Alzheimer's and lives in a nearby care center. Callie, 66, is looking for a way out of her personal pain and the family intrigue. Her daughter, 50-something Deb, is in jail for killing her own husband, and Deb’s daughter, Erin, returns home from a European opera gig — pregnant and unwed.

Dr. Hashmi, a geneticist interested in learning more about longevity, is invited by Callie to probe her family’s secret of youthful longevity. His investigation provides the catalyst for a number of long-held family secrets to be revealed.

Santo writes vivid visual descriptions and well-rounded characters with carefully chosen words. Background research is evident. However, there is no standard plot structure to the story. It is a character study — biographical fiction. Through conversation and memories, internal and vocalized, each woman’s story and her place in the family is revealed as each confronts current reality.

It’s not too hard to make connections on several levels between the long-lived olive trees planted six generations ago by Anna’s parents and the lives of the long-lived women.

Several short scientific articles interjected into the flow of the story give a dispassionate view of the Keller family from a scientist’s point of view but don’t seem vital.

There are references to intimate physical relationships, including a short chapter describing a romantic tryst in a hotel room. Some swear words are also used.

The last chapter abruptly shifts the flow of the story. It feels enigmatic and does not tie up several loose ends. Perhaps there is a sequel in the works.

Santo is currently lives in Memphis, Tenn., with her husband, two children and dog.

Rosemarie Howard lives in a 100-year-old house on Main Street, Springville. She enjoys creating multimedia projects. Her website is at dramaticdimensions.com.

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