STARRED REVIEW
May 2023

The Weeds

By Katy Simpson Smith
Review by
The Weeds requests the reader to observe and look for connections, to question structures and patterns, and to discover new ways of seeing.
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The Roman Colosseum is full of wonders and history and secrets—and plants. Observing, cataloging and communicating with these plants is the heart of Katy Simpson Smith’s impressive novel, as the narrative connects two women across time who are both performing these archival acts. Set in 1854 and 2018, The Weeds  moves between the voices of these two women, interlocking their lives as they document the presence of (or absence of) plants. 

In 1854, a woman was caught stealing, and her misbehavior has led to her being indentured to English botanist Richard Deakin; he sends her into the Colosseum to catalog the flora and their uses. She also tells her own story and meditates on the ways that society impinges upon her selfhood. She speaks to her missing love, a woman who is off on a boat, now married to a man. In 2018, a woman has run from the entrapment of her life, but she finds herself newly hemmed in as she seeks the plants on Deakin’s list, makes notes, begrudges the presence of tourists and wonders what her next step might be. What will science, and her male adviser, allow? 

The novel moves in quick (and often blurry) shifts between these centuries and women. They mirror parts of each other; they both encounter violence at many turns and scales, and each reacts to the ways their voices and choices are constrained in their societies. The plants around them produce their own forms of tension and elements of violence; they are undoubtedly characters in their own right.

Just as the plants in the Colosseum ask of the women, The Weeds requests the reader to observe and look for connections, to question structures and patterns, and to discover new ways of seeing. Each detail is carefully attuned and revealed, and each seed opens at the moment it needs to bloom and stretch. Patience is necessary, but close attention reveals infinite rewards.


Read Katy Simpson Smith’s Behind the Book feature on The Weeds: “Women and unwanted plants have an uncomfortable amount in common.”

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The Weeds

The Weeds

By Katy Simpson Smith
FSG
ISBN 9780374605476

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