Susan Orlean's latest, The Orchid Thief (Random House, ISBN 0-679-44739-3) is great for orchid buffs, Florida lore lovers or anyone who likes reading taut prose from an acute observer of the psychological backwaters of modern human experience. Orlean writes with a sideways glance (and a wink or two to the reader) at her main character, John Laroche, who by twists and turns of his genius/deviant mind is the meandering throughline of this personal history. He is the titular thief who, along with some Seminole Indians, gets caught red-handed in the Fakahatchee Strand collecting endangered orchids. His eventual conviction is secondary to a telling string of tales about orchid people, nurseries, Seminoles and, not least, the Florida Peninsula itself.

     Laroche is a colorful, though seemingly cursed entrepreneur, cut from the sandpits and swamps of south Florida. As Orleans points out, there are certain things about Florida which make it a bizarre blend of fecund optimism and brutal failure like the varied habitats she visits in the company of various spurious characters including Laroche. She tromps around in nurseries of people whom Laroche is sure she must meet, makes friends at the orchid shows, and describes the rivalries and intricacies of the orchid trade. Laroche is alternately an insider or an outsider depending on the level of his often zany ideas of what is or is not worth his attention.

     Orlean, as narrator, is sometimes a bit too wide-eyed. One of her tricks is to convince us she only half believes Laroche and then is, after ample initiation, able to sort out his aberrant behaviors. She sees through the foibles of Laroche's indulgent, chain-smoking know-it-all deviance, still admiring his ability to move on from utter failure. Her casual interest in orchids is piqued but then reined in after seeing others' orchid addictions. She is most enamored of one species (becauseof Laroche), the Ghost Orchid, Polyrhyzza lindeni,the species on which Laroche is sure he'll make his millions. The species woos her throughout driving the plot to its ultimate conclusion.

     Orchids have a fascination for certain people. But one doesn't have to be an orchid person to enjoy this tome. I should admit that I am an orchid grower myself. They are incredibly rewarding with just a modicum of success. The Orchid Thief is filled with assiduous observation. It makes one feel as if the field notes of a modern anthropologist working on a small population were found and published. The details are not clinical though, but savvy and tight. In a long list of summer reading suggestions, this tops mine.