Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
“Orchid Blooming” by Carol Van Den Hende is a heartwarming, classical love story centering on a tragically-orphaned woman, the titular Orchid, as she struggles with her self-doubts, trust issues, and phobias. Her co-star to tango with in the novel is Phoenix, a successful businessman, accomplished athlete, and dedicated philanthropist who is also wrestling with internal strife despite what outwardly appears to be a complete and happy life. Like with any good love story, these two have a lot of gaps that need to be filled. They can live without each other, but they are clearly better together.
While “Goodbye, Orchid” (the companion piece and sequel) centers on Phoenix, “Orchid Blooming” seems to center mostly on the titular character as she grows from an insecure and vulnerable woman to one who is confident, ready, and willing to try new things. It is arguable which of the two character is more compelling as a main protagonist because each has their own quirks that makes you pay attention to their hero's journey. This is fitting since this emphasizes the fact that they do make each other (and the story) better. The moments when they are together, having banter and having their will-they/won't-they moments are the best in both books. We get a lot more of that, thankfully, in “Orchid Blooming.”
An amazing dynamic to consider in these novels is that Orchid has about as high to climb in “Blooming” as Phoenix has to fall in “Goodbye.” This is something we love to see as readers/reviewers. We want to see characters who have arcs that move and develop as much as reasonably possible. Orchid in this book is clearly a very damaged and guilt-ridden person whose life is guided by fear, doubt, and regret. However, it is clear from the opening pages that there's hope for her yet as she is seen striving for a competitive assignment at her job.
There's more to that than meets the eye, however. The assignment is to China, where her family roots lie. Apparently, her family had left China in the midst of the Communist Revolution there, and her mother held on to some of the nuances of Chinese culture until the day she and Orchid's father died in a car accident on a snowy day. Her desire to go to China is much deeper than simply gaining prestige or getting more pay, it's doing right by her parents and reconnecting her with them—that massive gaping hole in her that seemingly can never be filled. She ultimately feels responsible for their deaths since they had been coming home to relieve her babysitter at the time (and probably feels some degree of survivor's guilt), and it's this self-hate and self-deprecation that followed her for much of her life.
What's incredible is that despite all of these sad and negative things, Orchid still seems like a character who has a great deal of hope and potential. Many of her self-limiting thoughts are just that: self-inflicted. If she can overcome them, the reader can imagine how great she could do and how happy she could potentially be.
Rounding out Orchid's character are a number of perks or pet-peeves about her, depending on how you look at things. A lot of these things spring from her witnessing her parents' accident, especially their presumably mangled bodies. Orchid is incredibly fearful of blood and gore, something which greatly influences the events of the next book. As an extension of this, she's also a vegetarian because the sight of blood and death disturbs her too much, including blood from a medium-rare steak.
On the other side, we have our main male protagonist, Phoenix. Phoenix seems to have the world. He's pretty rich, he's incredibly fit and handsome (something which is ironic considering the events of the next book), he seems to have a loving brother, and his charisma is magnetic. So, you'd think he'd be a Gary Stu, right? The perfect man with the perfect life. Kinda, but not really. Something about Phoenix is that despite his hard outer shell, he's quite soft on the inside. Primarily, he has a crippling fear of failure and letting people down bestowed on him by his father, a man who had incredibly (and sometimes unreasonably) high expectations. Phoenix really is a good and likable guy, at least in this prequel. He supports a noble charity that helps wounded and disabled veterans, including those who suffer from PTSD (an “invisible” wound), and he's also very sensitive to Orchid. Orchid really seems to need someone like Phoenix, someone who sees that the catacombs in Paris might be too much given her phobia and tries to guide her away from them to protect her sanity and preserve her happiness.
Phoenix has a foil in the form of his twin brother, Caleb. Yes, his foil is also a twin brother. As foils go, Caleb is very different personality-wise from Phoenix. He is angry, negative, vulgar, blunt, and sometimes insensitive, although he does excuse himself sometimes for the things he says. We get the vibe that he may be even more handsome than Phoenix, but is a lot darker and gruffer. Caleb does seem to love Phoenix, but you can sense that there may be some animosity seeing as Caleb runs tattoo parlors and Phoenix runs an above-the-ground charitable business. When you get to the next book, you'll see how ironic some of this is as the Caleb is challenged to adopt a more positive, optimistic attitude to inspire his brother who at that point undergoes arguably the darkest period of his life.
Phoenix himself seems to be a foil of Orchid since, at least outwardly, it seems as though Phoenix is a more “complete” person while Orchid is clearly missing a few pieces.
There is also a pretty humorous and somewhat villainous character in this who is often just called “Princeton” or “Mr. Princeton.” He is the favorite for the China assignment that Orchid is vying for, and so serves as her rival.
This is a mostly standard and somewhat generic love story that's written in an appealing way. A rich guy with a dark secret meeting a insecure girl who doesn't realize how truly great and beautiful she is... well, that's pretty par for the course. The book is also not as twisty or turny as one would hope with so much hype around this love story.
What elevates this book a little is that there is an element of dealing or coping with internal issues that permeates the book. Mental health and overcoming trauma seem to be at the heart of this. Orchid really has a lot to wrestle with and overcome over the course of this book.
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