Book Review: The Forbidden Orchid

The Forbidden Orchid
Published By: Viking
Publication Date: March 8, 2016
Page Count: 392
Source: Purchased by Reviewer
Audience: Young Adult - Historical Fiction

Elodie Buchanan is a girl before her time. She lives in England during the Victorian era in which women are to be queens of the domestic sphere with no thoughts in their heads and no opinions aside from those given to them by their husbands. Elodie is cut from a different cloth than the women of her time and craves adventure; she's also educated and curious. While other girls her age are looking for husbands, she is craving freedom from the shackles of society's expectations and the chance to see the world.

Elodie's longings remain locked within her mind as she is a solid and responsible young lady who helps runs the household and care for her numerous younger sisters. Her father is an exotic plant hunter who spends the majority of his days in jungles and forests throughout the world looking for rare plants for his employers. His frequent absences have made Elodie's mother melancholy, but when he does return, there is often fighting. Elodie wants to believe that her father is a good man that always puts his family first, but she begins to doubt this after her father returns from a trip to China and refuses to come home to his family. Elodie cannot allow this to stand, so she begins to investigate her father's final trip. Her discoveries will shake up her boring life in England and lead her half way around the world to China on the hunt for a rare purple orchid that is the key to her family's future.

The Forbidden Orchid is told in chronological sections. Readers will get a taste of Victorian England and its expectations for women, life on a tea clipper in the 1800's, and China in the aftermath of the Opium Wars. As a history nerd, I loved seeing these different aspects of life in the mid-1800's. I am well versed on life in the United States during this time frame, but am largely ignorant of what was happening in England aside from their limited connection to the US Civil War. I was fascinated by the time period, settings, and social structures. Womens history is an area of particular interest; I love reading about women (fictional and real) who challenged the gender roles of their time. 

Another aspect of this novel I found fascinating was the plant hunting. I had no idea that it was such a popular profession during the Victorian era. Orchids were highly prized and men traveled the globe to find new species. The occupation came with adventure and profit, but also posed perilous conditions such as the ones faced by Elodie's father. I also had no idea that orchids were perceived as not fit for female's eyes. I did some research on orchids after reading this one and found the Victorian view on the flower to be intriguing. 

It's also impossible to read this novel and not consider imperialism. The treatment of the Chinese people during this time period was deplorable. Fixing the balance of trade through opium sales was not the best course of action. My heart broke as I read about how opium impacted the Chinese population. I knew about these events from various Asian history course I have taken and teaching World History, but Waller helps to put a human face on the history.

History aside, this novel also has some memorable characters. Elodie meets several people along her travels that endeared themselves to me. Alex stands out because he is also a fish out of water sort who is seeking a place where he belongs. In spite of his difficult life, Alex has a of the pure hearts and a generous spirit. I don't know that I could handle things as well as he does. It's obvious that he cares deeply for Elodie. Their relationship is one of my favorite aspects of the novel.

I also enjoyed watching Elodie's relationships with various family members evolve throughout the course of the novel.

I was also intrigued by the notion of the forbidden when reading this one. What is it about those things that are off limits that make us want to pursue them more? Certainly not all forbidden items are healthy, but where would we be if those before us had not fought past those barriers? I can't help thinking of the struggle for gender equality in particular. Would I even be writing a blog if women before me hadn't paved the way? There are moments when forbidden is simply a way to try to hold a group of people back. The notion of doing what is right and challenging archaic views is something I will always champion. I can say that Elodie is made of far stronger stock than I. There is no way I would have had the gumption and courage she shows throughout this novel. I prefer to read about adventures rather than put myself in the midst of them.

Sharon Biggs Waller has delivered another historical tale worth devouring. She places a strong feminism element within her stories and crafts strong female characters who fight against gender inequality and push the envelope of their times. I can only hope she will continue to write historical fiction in this vein in the future. Waller is one of my favorite YA historical writers. Her research is detailed which allows the time period to come alive. I truly feel like I have stepped out of my life and into the past when I read one of her novels. The notes at the end of the novel provided more background on elements from the novel; these tidbits have piqued my interest in doing further research.

One Last Gripe: The novel dragged a bit for me while they were on the tea clipper.

Favorite Thing About The Book: I loved learning more about orchids and plant hunting.

First Sentence: My father was a plant hunter - an adventurer - and I saw little of him my first fourteen years, even less the next two, but after I turned seventeen he became my whole world.

Favorite Character: Alex

Least Favorite Character: Duffey

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?


  1. I really loved this one too, although I think I liked A Mad, Wicked Folly a bit better. She's so good at history, and conveying the moods and mores of the time. I found a few parts slow, and I also think this may be a hard sell to my teens, but personally, it's my kind of book. Great review!

    1. I liked A Mad, Wicked Folly slightly better as well. I found the middle to be a little slow, but important to her relationship development with Alex. I agree that for some teens it will be difficult for them to get into it, but those history fans will enjoy it.

  2. I haven't heard of this author before. Really would love to read it. I like historical fiction, and the characters sound so interesting.

  3. This one is new to me, that gorgeous cover caught my attention (am a sucker for good cover art lol). As much as Victorian (both social and psychological) historical fiction is so appealing, I think certain aspects of this book would infuriate/depress me.

  4. I'd read it, but I think the parts with women being treated in such an appalling manner would really get to me. Wouldn't deter me from reading it, or knowing an amazing story being told.


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