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"The Orchid Thief"

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John Laroche, the central character in Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief (Random House; $25), is not so much orchidaceous as obsessive. He'd had steady romances with turtles, fossils, and tropical fish before he even entered the shade house full of the sort of people who fight over Polyrrhiza lindenii. There, he belongs -- orchid people are all crazy. Orlean's hilariously reported, discursive narrative wanders off into Seminole history, real-estate fraud, stolen flora, and the scary, swampy Fakahatchee Strand. Just when you fear you're lost in the Everglades, she returns to the flower at hand, and unleashes some delirious prose: "I thought I might die if I couldn't have this one. The background of the petals was the beigy yellow of a legal pad, and over the yellow background was a spray of hot-pink pinpoint dots. The center of the flower looked like the face of a piglet. The flower wasn't beautiful -- it was absorbing." Orlean shows great restraint and never adopts an orchid -- readers may not manage to be so cold-blooded.


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