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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Greenhouse

Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

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To purchase The Greenhouse

Title: The Greenhouse
Author: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
Genre: Novel
Written: 2007 (Eng. 2011)
Length: 260 pages
Original in: Icelandic
Availability: The Greenhouse - US
The Greenhouse - UK
The Greenhouse - Canada
The Greenhouse - India
Rosa candida - France
Weiß ich, wann es Liebe ist ? - Deutschland
Rosa candida - España
  • Icelandic title: Afleggjarinn
  • Translated by Brian FitzGibbon

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Our Assessment:

B : decent novel of young adulthood, but throws a bit too much in without taking it far enough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Lire A 17/3/2011 André Clavel

  From the Reviews:
  • "Un petit bijou, un roman de la rose -- sans la moindre mièvrerie -- où la vie a le parfum des fleurs et où les fleurs ont la grâce d'un sonnet de Ronsard." - André Clavel, Lire

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Greenhouse is narrated by Arnltjótur Thórir, also known as Lobbi. He is twenty-two-years old, and about to set off on his own, leaving far behind his seventy-seven-year-old father, his apparently autistic -- and: "total opposite in appearance" -- twin brother, and the still lingering trauma of the death of his mother in a car crash. Though academically gifted, he has no ambition to go to university, and instead works hands-on as a gardener; his fond memories of pottering around in the greenhouse next to mom no doubt play a role in that. He is also a father, his daughter, Flóra Sól, now just over half a year old, the result of what wasn't even a full one-night stand with a student of genetics, Anna, whom he barely knows (and hasn't gotten to know much better -- though he was there at the birth of his child).
       Inexplicably, Arnltjótur has been hired to put a monastery-garden in a distant (unnamed) foreign country back in shape -- not just any garden, but: "The most famous rose garden in the world", and so he sets off on his journey of (self-)discovery, taking with him three cuttings from a special rose variety, a white Rosa candida without thorns that he wants to add to the famous rose garden.
       Arnltjótur's odyssey to the distant monastery, across several borders and taking several days, includes a bit of adventure, but encounters here too are fleeting, as he is focused on reaching his destination (with his cuttings). Exact locales don't matter here: Auður is intentionally vague about them, never naming any countries, or even languages, even as Arnltjótur repeatedly mentions his difficulty in communicating in the various ones he comes across.
       Arnltjótur settles in well-enough at his destination, taken under the wing by Father Thomas, whose worldliness -- for better and worse ("You can learn a lot about women's feelings by watching Antonioni") -- is largely the result of his obsession with international cinema, and who occasionally invites Arnltjótur to watch a video with him. Things get slightly more complicated when Anna contacts Arnltjótur and says she needs a month or so of peace and quiet and concentrated study to finish her thesis, and wants to foist their kid on him for the duration -- apparently bringing their daughter to this very distant place (and into the arms of a young man who has no experience whatsoever taking care of an infant) is the only option she can think of. Anna shows up with the kid -- but instead of leaving decides at the last minute that, as long as Arnltjótur can keep an eye on Flóra Sól for part of the day, she might as well finish her work here. Arnltjótur is, at least, very adaptable, and readily adjusts to the situation. He easily bonds with his very friendly and trusting daughter -- and matters are presumably helped by the fact that the kid is a sound sleeper and apparently never cries, much less throws any tantrums.
       Arnltjótur goes through a period of maturation and domestication: he slowly figures out things like cooking or doing laundry, and he seems to do just fine parading the adorable Flóra Sól around (and notes that the locals are considerably friendlier when he has the kid in tow). He and Anna wind up sharing a bed, but they don't manage to communicate well, and are barely able to discuss their relationship; Anna remains difficult for him to figure out, and when he tries to discuss where they are at he finds there's: "a vast chasm between what I'm saying and what I'm thinking".
       The story doesn't reach any easy, obvious resolution, though Auður can't resist suggesting Arnltjótur has found his proper place -- come home, in a sense -- by finding that the eight-petaled rose he had so carefully transported from his actual home to transplant here already had its place here. As to his relationship and future with Anna and Flóra Sól, it comes as somewhat of a surprise how that is (un)resolved, with Arnltjótur having become the one whose feet are more firmly planted on the ground. One can hardly say he's become a man, but he seems to have found, for now, his place in life.
       The Greenhouse has some quirky and sentimental appeal, but ultimately Auður layers on a bit much -- from Arnltjótur's father and brother, to Anna and Father Thomas and even the neighbor who treats Flóra Sól like a blessed little cure-all. It's all a bit too sunshiny and even twee; yes, there was that horrific car accident that mom had (and it's no wonder Arnltjótur remains somewhat traumatized by that) but that was in the past, and all the present turns out just fine in this world where even the baby doesn't cry. It's not a family idyll, since it creaks on all sides -- dad is an old man, the twin brother mentally severely damaged, Anna absent-minded and focused on her studies -- but all the creaking is harmless, and everything is nevertheless just fine, and everyone goes pretty happily on their merry ways, the future looking bright.
       Arnltjótur's voice in The Greenhouse, and how his story unfolds, has its appeal, but even his down-to-earth tone can't cover up how artificial and constructed the fiction is, as Auður tries too hard, and with too much. Still, it's a reasonably entertaining read.

       (Note that this is one of those books whose titles foreign publishers have had trouble with: the Icelandic original, Afleggjarinn, refers to the (rose-)cuttings that Arnltjótur takes with him. The French (and Spanish) publishers went with Rosa candida as a title (though, in fact, the rose in question isn't quite that, but a variation), while the Germans went with the horrific Weiß ich, wann es Liebe ist ? ('Do I know when it's love ?'). The Greenhouse, too, is anything but spot-on -- but admittedly there's no obvious suitable alternative, and it's hardly worse than what the other foreign publishers came up with.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 30 September 2011

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The Greenhouse: Reviews: Other books by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Icelandic author Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir was born in 1958.

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