cover image The Weeds

The Weeds

Katy Simpson Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-60547-6

Smith revisits Rome, the setting of The Everlasting, with another sensuous and sprawling story of the Eternal City. In the 1850s, British botanist Richard Deakin sets about cataloging the flora of the Roman Colosseum. Smith focuses on Deakin’s apprentice, an unnamed woman who is apprehended for burglary and lesbianism and forced by her father to help Deakin. The apprentice’s chapters alternate with present-day entries from the point of view of an unnamed graduate student who is assisting her adviser in replicating Deakin’s study. As the apprentice toils through her sentence, the student rues her lazy and mediocre adviser, a man who says “dumb things” like “Something is always blooming.” The story unfurls, unhurriedly, in the form of an indexed list of vegetation from both narrators in which the entries serve as metaphors for the stifled women’s respective predicaments. Of bitter-cress, for instance, Smith writes: “Picture a plant so sensitive, so f-ing heart-on-its-sleeve, that it built its seeds to explode in a shower of fireworks every time so much as the gentlest thrush wing brushes by.” It’s an ingenious device to connect these resilient characters across time, and to show how women can fall through the cracks and still flourish. There’s not much narrative momentum, but the potent details bring this to vibrant life. Patient readers will enjoy stopping to smell the clematis. Agent: Bill Clegg, Clegg Agency. (Apr.)