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The Overstory

Written by: Richard Powers
Narrated by: Suzanne Toren
Length: 22 hrs and 58 mins
4 out of 5 stars (6 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Brought to you by Penguin. 

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2019.

Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2018.

The New York Times best seller.

A wondrous, exhilarating novel about nine strangers brought together by an unfolding natural catastrophe.

An artist inherits 100 years of photographic portraits, all of the same doomed American chestnut. A hard-partying undergraduate in the late 1980s electrocutes herself, dies and is sent back into life by creatures of air and light. A hearing and speech-impaired scientist discovers that trees are communicating with one another. An Air Force crew member in the Vietnam War is shot out of the sky, then saved by falling into a banyan.

This is the story of these and five other strangers, each summoned in different ways by the natural world, who are brought together in a last stand to save it from catastrophe.

©2018 Richard Powers (P)2018 Random House Audiobooks

Critic Reviews

"Really, just one of the best novels, period." (Ann Patchett) 

"The best book I’ve [listened to] in ten years." (Emma Thompson)

"Dazzlingly written." (Robert Macfarlane)

What members say
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A saga for our times

“The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

"To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one"

"She tries to turn the story on its head. This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived."


Richard Powers's ambitious story is one of the most profound books you will ever read which is most relevant to mankind and yet not about men. With multiple references in the book as to what the book is trying to achieve - you are left in no-illusion of who the heroes of the book are (despite the 9 human protagonists).

The overwhelming thoughts when the book ends is that "Where did we as a species go wrong?" and a heigtened sense of awareness to the general green you see (or don't see) around you.

The first section called Roots - introduces each character in the backdrop of specific trees you will not forget. Some through stories that span generations till we arrive at the protagonist. For the trees, human years do not matter. Each character has a unique background and different motivations which bring different perspectives on love for trees (or hatred towards agents of deforestation).

In concentric manner, these characters come together in various combinations and the shoots, fruits and seeds spread. I kept recalling images of the Ent Meet from LOTR and the Chipko movement lesson in class

The book toys with a lot of interesting ideas, symbols and motifs steeped in science and man-made systems.
- One of the characters, an Intellectual Property lawyer tries to answer if trees have rights and why they should be considered as beings
- An online game called Mastery on conquering the virtual world toying with the idea of making resources limited and make conservation a survival strategy
- Recurring motifs of characters contemplating suicide in various contexts. Couldn't help relating to the human species way of life
- The pshycology of the bystander effect and group think. Apathy to the environment and radical thinking explained
- Trees communicating with each other to help the species survive

The layered narrative (to put it lightly) gets heavier but not entirely pointless. Could there have been any other way than villifying humans? Could there have been more joy in victory or more pain in failure? Maybe, but then would not have been what it is - where humans fade away into the background despite them being in every frame.

A commendable saga which will change you a bit.

  • Overall
    5 out of 5 stars

Full of life!

Must read for nature lovers. The writing grows into you! Perfectly narrated. Heaven for botanists!

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  • Anonymous User
  • 02-08-19

The most difficult book you have to read

This story is the literary mirror that you will struggle to look into. It's beautifully written; poetic at times and at times, pure story-telling in the ancient ways that stories were told. Full of myth-in-the-making it tells of the anti-heros that in time will become the seeds of gods. It will be very difficult to read at times because the truth hurts, but you will feel lighter, wiser and More when you are done.

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  • L Barry
  • 14-10-19

Enchanting, tragic, hopeful

Enchanting - I am an artist by profession, with a fascination for forests and trees and have done many works centred around this subject matter. Richard Powers' prose inspired an other world level of appreciation and awareness for me. I loved the intertwining stories of the main characters to trees and each other.

Tragic - A work of fiction I know, but so much of it is based on truths and reality. What humans do! Have done and continue to do to the environment. Every human should read this story.

Hopeful - That should people wake up to the true value of trees and breathe in the beauty and wonder of forests there will be hope. And having said that they will recover if left in peace, in spite of humans.

I do agree that there was a point at which the story could have ended earlier than it did but I for one was glad to hear more. In fact I listened to the book twice for any hidden intricacies that I may have missed first time round and to repeat the magic of the book's true heros : the trees. I loved it.

The reader's voice I found to be rather austere for my taste. If you feel the same (listening to the sample) don't let it put you off... she does a great job all the same.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 25-07-19

A remarkable and complex effort.

This book has changed my life (as it should). Haunting, dazzling, daunting, superb, devastating and so, so BEAUTIFUL.

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  • Cliente Amazon
  • 18-04-20

Powerful story beautiful read

This is a real saga in the tradition of the great American novel. It's not always an easy listen, but it's well worth the effort. I am a fan of Richard Powers in anycase: he researches his books so well and I loved the narration.

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  • sally ohare
  • 13-02-20

An inspiring awesome tale. Loveable characters <br /><br />

An important message for humanity told in an engaging way. Thank you. So much for the telling.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 30-03-19

Could have been an interesting book...

I found it really difficult to finish the book. Although I like to general idea of the book — I really wanted to like it — I didn’t find the story and the naration engaging enough. I am also annoyed with the way the narrator mimicked different accents.

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  • Earnest
  • 19-01-19

So important, but needs sustained attention

I loved this book but it is speaking to the converted. All the authorial devices used, I get. But. Many who should be learning what this book so earnestly attempts to teach, will give up because of its flaws.
What a shame. Most of it is so beautiful. But repetition and polemics repel many people, particularly if they don’t love trees. This tale will not convert them. So sorry.
The voice actor is splendid.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 24-12-18

Changed forevet

Brilliantly written and read. I wished it could have lasted longer. Deserved rhe man booker prize.

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  • Mr. T. Eagling
  • 14-08-19

So boring

Really well written , but so long , it didn’t need to be.

Also the narrator shouldn’t do Asian accents, like really shouldn’t .

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 29-01-19

Extraordinary

In a way, this novel tells us more about the understory than The Overstory. In spite of painting a world, ours, on the brink of disaster, it gives us defiance against so called ‘human progress’, sensitive intelligence towards and solidarity with Nature, a generous love of humanity, and, most of all, the possibility of redemption for our crimes against the Earth. And trees are the giant heroes of this story in an astonishingly empathetic, intelligent and generous way.
The rich, poetical, inventive, beautiful language of Richard Powers is a joy to listen to. And the reader conveys all these and the strength of the story perfectly.
Some readers might find this novel periphrastic and over long, but, in my opinion, this format could be seen as an almost pictorial representation of the shape and nature of trees themselves - trunks, growing, expanding, intertwining branches, leaves and roots.
Wonderful and necessary reading.

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  • ANNABEL
  • 18-02-19

This book is amazing

I think everyone should read The Overstory. It’s a life changer. It does not anthropomorphise trees and nature but makes a very good argument for leaving them alone to save us as well as them. This wonderful, upsetting at times but also a fantastic story is a cry for conservation and a vital warning to self obsessed, money hungry humans....

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 22-01-19

Phenomenal

Richard Powers writes beautifully, researches meticulously and weaves stories that are completely engrossing and totally convincing. The Overstory is both a moving and powerful work of fiction and a convincing manifesto for trees.

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  • Kindle Customer
  • 01-08-19

High Expectations

Despite feeling an affinity with the causes and dilemmas of the characters in their introductions, I didn't find I had a significant emotional response to their individual stories as the interweaving plot developed. There is one moment of dramatic and traumatic climax but after that I found that it was a rather flat ride to a rather flat conclusion.

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  • Mrs Prudence Irvine
  • 21-02-19

Too Complex for audio

I only managed a half of Part One as I found the narrative too difficult to follow in audio version. As I listen while stitching I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, every time. Perhaps best if listened to without any distraction at all, which is not how I usually listen.

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  • Iain Crockett
  • 18-08-19

wow what a read!

If you care about our planet and its forests this book may be life changing. It has certainly affected me. long ranging story of the interconnections between people and between plants. Going to read it again. It should be on the syllabus of every school

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  • Amazon Customer
  • 05-08-19

so good I listened twice

good story with well written characters. it has made me think about trees differently. the writing is almost poetic. I think the ending was a bit disappointing but a great book beautifully read.

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  • A. Jones
  • 02-08-19

wonderful book

I learnt so much about trees and history from this book. Definitely one to listen to over and over again.

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  • al355
  • 17-06-20

Beautiful and Powerful

Highlights the complexity and intricacy of the natural world, especially the trees on earth and the need for humans to re-evaluate their values and behaviours or just accept that they will kill a large number of themselves off and will have to 'learn life all over again'. Just love the detailed description of the variety of tree behaviours. I'm much more appreciative of our green cousins. Some great characters in the book too. Loved Doug and Patricia.

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  • ::m::
  • 11-06-20

Cringeworthy accents

What’s up with the narrator’s accents? The Norwegian immigrant has a thick German accent rather than the singsong Scandinavian accent. The rendition of the Chinese immigrant make Apu from the Simpsons seem thoughtful and nuanced. Is Audible planning a movie adaptation using actors with black face?
The novel itself isn’t that great either. The author isn’t great with subtleties of human nature and instead goes for extremes. Two sisters that are the complete opposites, a couple of characters with relentlessly obsessive hobbies, a mother with strong dementia and a soldier with PTSD etc.

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  • Anonymous User
  • 17-12-18

A mind changing book!

An amazing story that has changed the way I look at both mankind and trees alike, quite literally. I thought I loved trees before but have a new appreciation! Has made me rethink some of my choices, big and small. A great story, a little difficult to follow at times, particularly in first half, but worth the challenge.
Highly recommend!

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  • Marita
  • 06-02-19

Masterpiece

I loved this book. It was complex, enlightening, thoughtful, deeply spiritual and instructive. I'm now in love with trees, and have a lot more understanding of people who are prepared to stick their necks out for what they believe in. The reading was probably the best I've heard - many different voices, all convincing and engaging. My current favourite book.

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  • Pauline King
  • 23-05-19

A Truly Amazing Journey

I loved this book, but I find it almost impossible to describe. It's a fable, a fairy tale, a history lesson and a study of modern life and an absorbing look at the power of trees to save the planet - all wrapped up in an engrossing novel. It's a tour de force that mixes and melds many lives and events over a period of time with the latest in scientific understanding of the lives of trees. People and trees interact throughout, events of the past reach forward in time to influence today. The book deals largely with forest ecology and the ecological movement and the growing wish to 'do something' to save the planet from destruction. But time becomes something different as the author compares tree years with human years, as a human life time begins and ends and trees go on and ecological issues continue, The characters are complex and vital and multi-faceted and as their lives unfolded I felt again and again 'this is so real'. The issues too are real, there is no satisfactory resolution at the end of the book - but there are many possibilities to take us ever onward. This book has made a huge impression on me, it has somehow changed me.

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  • Hannah Petroni
  • 11-01-19

Captivated from the first words

I loved this book! Its fantastic reading, as several great stories that grow, build, connect and diverge, until you realise Richard Powers has created a book that reflects its subject matter in every possible way and suddenly your mind is blown.

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  • Roslyn
  • 21-09-19

A masterful reading of a magical book

This lyric reading washed over me with an ocean of memories, images. and ideas. I'm so grateful to get the chance to revisit my abiding reverence for trees.

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  • Janet
  • 26-06-20

complex and interesting

I mainly enjoyed this book, it was complex and I feel it could have been edited more ..parts of it went on and on. I also felt it became a little bit less interesting in the second half. Saying that I would still recommend it as an interesting, thoughtful listen.

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  • andrew johnstone
  • 20-01-20

A Holy Book

For some there is only one valid 'holy book', The Bible. A compendium of wisdom, history, prophecy, metaphor and polemic, the Bible is of course but one of many 'holy books' adrift in the ocean of humanity. Comparisons include the vast cannon of works that underline Hinduism, Buddhist literature and we haven't even reached the borders of China yet.

But 'holy books' (general guides to life. living, human psychology and the mysteries of existence) aren't some static fixture from a particular time in human history, they appear all the time in all sorts of forms and among the most recent batch I might dare to include Richard Powers 2018 novel The Overstory, winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

This sprawling novel explores a disparate group of people and their relationship to trees and is both exhilarating and frustrating. Powers is a writer, scientist, musician........ it's a long list so let's just say he's an all round Renaissance man and The Overstory is the work of one so inclined and examines biological science, history, scientific speculation, polemic, metaphor, psychology, prophecy and so on.

It is inspiring, transformative (in regards to how it might change the way your mind considers plant life), thrilling, gripping and as I said, somewhat frustrating. Here I am referring to an overladen cast, with one or two characters that may be superfluous to the task and whose undercooked presence sucks the life out of the narrative flow from time to time.

The novel is also a tad top heavy and though Powers manages the unwieldy task of weaving the threads together, it could have done with a little more 'finishing', but small niggles.

In the same vein of fictional inquiry aka 'holy books' like Hermann Hesse's The Glass Bead Game and David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Richard Powers The Overstory is a plea for the planet, this living breathing network of biological complexity that has managed sentience among a bewildering host of achievements (certainly some references to evolutionary philosopher Pierre Teilhard De Chardin at work here).

Powers has a way with words and the result is a beautifully crafted and somewhat poetic novel that leaves the reader better for the experience and in my case, chagrined at my lack of insight aka trees. Certainly a book for our time, maybe for the ages.

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  • Tess Uncle
  • 10-10-19

Powerful story

This is great. Beautifully told, you follow the lives of a handful of characters held together by trees. Recommend.

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  • Madonna
  • 25-09-19

if you care for the future - read this book

a wonderful work of fact & fiction placing the natural world where it belongs💖. thank you!

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  • Jutta Zotz
  • 02-08-19

A masterpiece

A thought-provoking and moving work of literature.
This book will change the way you view life.