The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith

Two botanists discover themselves in the world of weeds.

The Weeds by Katy Simpson Smith. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 320. $27.

Can you identify a dandelion? Probably. But do you know the name’s origins? Dents de lion, French for: teeth of lion. Katy Simpson Smith’s new novel holds these little wonders and more. For people who think a weed’s a weed and for master gardeners both, The Weeds will get you naming leaves and telling the folktales behind each speck of green loitering in a ditch or yard.

Two female botanists (one in 1854, the other present-day) are getting down and dirty in the dust and, well, dirt of the Roman Colosseum. With chapters alternating points of view and headed by various plants, from thyme to wheat-grass to cornflowers, Smith’s fourth book details how these two women find themselves looking and cataloging weeds. (Devotees of Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle or The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert are sure to become fast fans.)

Botanist A (our modern-day flora explorer) has run away from her Mississippi life. She is in Rome as a sort of (self)punishment, in exile, under the tutelage of an “advisor” who is working her to the bone in the hot sun so that he can get the credit for his thesis on plant cultivation and disappearance. Not only a source of conflict, this advisor also provides us with a clear view of the white-male-centric world of academia, a social and education-structure critique.

The Weeds doesn’t shove this at you, though, like a flower its blooms. It’s often very funny and laid back. Botanist A is especially wicked in her speech and her thoughts. Besides, on every page, there is something to learn, whether it is scientific, medical, cultural, or folkloric about this or that plant. The ability to keep the chapters short and entertaining over the whole is marvelous and shows a real power of storytelling. Each is really like a little Lydia Davis flash fiction, but they all come together to tell a tale of plants and marriage and the fairer sex’s lot in life (regardless of century, nothing seems to have changed all that much). It is reminiscent of the style in Jenny Offill’s terrific book, Weather.

Our other leading lady, Botanist B, is in Rome to help the 19th century, real-life botanist Richard Deakin, who’s writing his Flora of the Colleseum of Rome (also real). Remembering her lover, a woman now married and sailing off in obvious marital bliss (obviously…), Botanist B sorts through the plethora of plants in the nooks and crannies of that arena of death. She herself is about to be thrown out into the cold arms of matrimony; her father finding a soldier to provide for her (or, really, finding some sad soldier, who lives with his mother, a wife to be provided for).

These narratives intertwine like strands of honeysuckle and at times can be a bit confusing; it’s important to know that our modern gal, Botanist A, also references Deakin. But the mention of phones or the prodigious use of the f-word is a tell-tale sign that we are in contemporary Italy with its Fiats and pizza. As for Botanist B, she is the thief of the two, and though in the end she herself is stolen from in the vilest manner, there are some delicious just-desserts served on her part.

The Weeds is really a wonderful book. There’s drama and self-finding and a whole lot of fascinating botanical info that’ll get you out in your own garden. Katy Simpson Smith really revels in what she reveals about the natural world as well as the human one. The amount of research surely involved must have been dizzying. But worth it. The idea of desire and finding one’s destiny moves the narrative along, pushing through the ghosts of dead mothers and of heartbreak. Though these ladies are nameless, they are bound to find a place in your memory whenever you see a clump of rosemary. 

Get a copy at The Bookshop.

Konstantin Rega
A graduate of East Anglia’s renowned Creative Writing MA, Konstantin’s been published by the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Poetry Salzburg Review,, the Republic of Consciousness Prize (etc.). He contributes to Publisher Weekly and Treblezine.
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