For the five generations of women who inhabit Courtney Miller Santo’s elegant debut novel, The Roots of the Olive Tree, the ties that bind are often tangled. From the fiery and preternaturally robust centenarian, Anna, to the youngest and pregnant member of the family tribe, Erin, the evolving relationships between mothers and daughters are at the heart of this story, which is set against the lush backdrop of an olive tree farm in Northern California.
With nary a man around the farm—all of the men in the Keller family are either dead, confined to a nursing home or determined never to return—the female quintet find themselves the subject of a visiting research geneticist, who is determined to unlock the secret behind the women’s incredible resistance to the ravages of old age. The story unfolds as the youngest member of the family, Erin, returns home from Europe where she has found success as an opera singer. Pregnant and bereft, Erin declines to explain her predicament, but is determined to rekindle her relationship with her mother, Deborah, who has been languishing in jail for years after murdering her husband—Erin’s father—in a jealous rage.
Erin’s wish is granted, but Deborah’s return to the farm is not the joyful family reunion her daughter imagined. Old wounds are reopened, and it is soon clear that jail has not reformed the family’s proverbial black sheep, a damaged narcissist with a violent temper. The women are soon at odds, with daughters shunning their mothers in favor of the nurturing, unconditional love of grandmothers, great-grandmothers and—in the Keller family—even great-great-grandmothers.
Santo is well aware of the mystical nature of longevity, as well as the blessings bestowed by grandmothers: Her own great-grandmother, Winifred Rodgers White, was almost 104 when Santo wrote her novel. This exploration of the mysteries of aging and the human heart will resonate with readers.