A debut novel about five generations of long-lived women, each with her own secrets and private woes.
In this, her first novel, Courtney Miller Santo has assembled all the ingredients for a savory read: Anna Keller is, at 112, obsessed with becoming the world's oldest person. At the start of the narrative, she is about to be visited by a geneticist who hopes to discover the key to her longevity. Grafted to Anna's story are the back stories of her four lineal female descendants, all "firstborns."
Set in 2006 in the Sacramento Valley amid the Keller family's 50 acres of olive trees, "The Roots of the Olive Tree" (William Morrow, 308 pages, $25.99) gradually reveals the secrets of supercentenarian Anna, along with those of her 90-year-old daughter Bets, her sixty-something granddaughter Callie, her 42-year-old great-granddaughter Deb, and her 27-year-old great-great-granddaughter Erin. Like the sturdy olive tree rootstock Anna's father brought from Australia in 1898, the family's California roots are twisted and gnarled, yet strong and hardy.
Anna and Bets and Callie live together in Hill House, the family's ancestral home in Kidron, the tiny town that Anna's tough-as-steel father had literally helped move a mile closer to the railroad in 1900. Their quiet routine is upended when Erin unexpectedly returns from Italy, where she's been singing mezzo soprano in an opera company, and Deb, Erin's mother, is about to have her second parole hearing. All five women are anticipating the arrival of Dr. Amrit Hashmi, who will take blood samples and track their genes, unwittingly discovering some hidden parts of the family's past.
Santo's plot is multi-branched, sometimes to the detriment of the novel's focus. A mystery surrounding Anna's parentage and Deb's criminal past threatens to overwhelm the narrative's major premise involving Anna's great age, which all the women want to attribute to the salubrious effects of the "liquid gold" pressed from the family olive trees.
With its inherently fascinating subject -- unlocking the genetic mutation that will extend life to 150 years and beyond -- and its generational family drama, it is disappointing that Santo's debut is marred by clunky transitions, melodramatic plot turns and sensational late revelations. The women are not much differentiated, making it difficult for a reader to keep straight all the greats and great-greats. The novel sometimes reads like soap opera ("'You never loved me,'" Deborah shouted toward her mother [Callie] as Erin wrestled her onto the couch. 'Nobody has ever loved me.'"), and the language too often devolves into cliché.
Despite these shortcomings, Santo has shown she can spin a lively, complicated tale. She capably illustrates the truisms that too high expectations usually lead to disappointments, and that human relationships are messy, contingent and ever-changing. I'm betting Santo will deliver a strong second novel, and I'm eager to see where her fertile imagination takes her next.
Kathryn Lang is a former editor at Southern Methodist University Press.