Bestselling author Anne D. LeClaire’s new novel “The Orchid Sister” (Lake Union Publishing, 2019) explores, in part, how things go wrong when people defy nature and seek the fountain of youth.
“What kind of a culture have we become that we pursue anti-aging in such a fear-filled way?” LeClaire asked during a recent interview in her South Chatham home. Yet “the desire for eternal youth is eternal.”
The germ of LeClaire’s intriguing 10th novel came 23 years ago when LeClaire’s son Christopher showed her an article in Men’s Health Magazine about a Mexican clinic that specialized in anti-aging procedures illegal in the U.S.
She describes “The Orchid Sister” as a cross between Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a dystopian novel where women are used for breeding, and Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” a novel about a beautiful young man who sells his soul to stay forever young.
Researching the novel in the late 1990s, LeClaire traveled to Mexico three times, taking extensive notes about everything she experienced, including a swim in an underground river where coral cut her feet and bats flew overhead. She also made notes on aging. Yet instead of writing that novel, she wrote four others as well as her memoir “Listening Below the Noise: The Transformative Power of Silence” (2009) and her first children’s book, “Kaylee Finds a Friend” (2018). Her last novel, “The Halo Effect,” came out two years ago.
Twenty-three years passed, but each time LeClaire did a bit of housekeeping at her desk, she’d come across the notes. “This was like the incubation of an elephant,” she says. “It was forever.”
No doubt “The Orchid Sister” is all the richer for its lengthy gestation. The novel tells the story of sisters Maddie and Kat who suffered a terrible loss 15 years earlier when their parents were killed in an airplane crash. At age 19, Maddie was also on the airplane and suffered burns that left her, after months of pain and procedures in the burn unit, with terrible scars. She has transformed from a gregarious, adventuresome girl to “a cautious, tentative woman.” As the novel opens, Kat is a magazine reporter, and Maddie is a sculptor who creates masks. And Maddie’s unexpected new boyfriend Jack is, of all things, a pilot. LeClaire is herself a private pilot, something that allowed her to write about Jack’s love of aviation.
Maddie soon learns that Kat is missing. After visiting her apartment and finding, among other things, that the three orchids that Kat tends like pets are partially withered, Maddie turns detective, searching for her sister in the Yucatan coast.
In both “The Orchid Sister” and the “The Halo Effect,” LeClaire tells the story through shifting points of view. She says she does this because seeing characters from both the outside and the inside offers a way to offer rounded pictures of them.
“It’s so easy to judge in life,” she says. But when LeClaire writes in a character’s voice, she builds sympathy for that person. “It opens us to empathy for all humanity. Actions people take make sense to them.”
LeClaire, who leads writing workshops, says she does not plan her novels and in fact, she often doesn’t know where her characters are heading. She draws inspiration from many sources. Sometimes she runs into the precise person she needs to question about a nugget of research, and other times she overhears snatches of conversation in restaurants. She even draws from her own dreams. “Dreams are so filled with the information I need. Plot development, character—the pipeline is open,” she says. “It’s as if the universe is sending signs—we’re co-creating that.”
And for LeClaire, as for many other fiction writers, character names are key. While writing, LeClaire refers to four books of baby names to seek out the meaning and history of various names. Maddie’s boyfriend Jack didn’t have a last name for a long time. One day the surname “Moroni” popped into LeClaire’s head. All she knew of Jack at that point was that he was a trumpet player. In a delightful coincidence, she found that “Moroni” is an angel—one who plays the trumpet.
To summarize the elements of the plot is to sidestep much of what is going on in a LeClaire novel. If “The Halo Effect” was partly an exploration of the different ways grief can express itself, “The Orchid Sister” is a look at how we endure loss and the worst that life throws at us. Do we wither or do we thrive? And why are we obsessed with staying young?
“How do we heal, how do we forgive?” LeClaire asks. “The complexities of the human heart and mind are endlessly fascinating.” The questions LeClaire poses and how she explores them is part of what draws people into LeClaire’s fictional world. We also read a LeClaire novel because we engage with her characters. The climactic scene of “The Orchid Sister,” drenched in symbolism, offers a satisfying close to the gripping story.