The Short Version: Alma Whittaker is born in the early moments of the 19th Century to an immensely wealthy Philadelphia land-owner. Her love of science – and her desire to be loved – will chart a course through the 1800s and towards the great scientific revelations that are to come.
The Review: I’ve read nothing of Elizabeth Gilbert before. Oh, don’t worry, I’m aware of Eat, Pray, Love – when I was at the Strand Warehouse Sale a few weeks back, there seemed to be a copy of EPL on every shelf, like something out of a Pratchett or Fforde novel. It is an inescapable part of modern culture, even for those of us who haven’t read or seen it. Despite having no real basis other than my unfounded curled-lip-disdain for that story, I intended to give this book a wide berth. The plot seemed only marginally interesting – a young girl grows up in Philadelphia, there’s botany involved, and apparently orchids. Not exactly my cup of tea, although I do have a soft spot for my old ‘hometown’ (read: nearby metropolis).
So I’m glad the ToB nudged me towards reading it, after it picked up a win in the opening round – because, actually, it’s not bad. My fears were completely unfounded, for one thing: I was expecting something, well, not ToB-worthy. But instead, this was a strong if not particularly extra-ordinary old-school life-story novel. We follow Alma from her birth – in fact, we see her father Henry from his time as a youngster too – to her waning days and that’s the scope of the book: to look at a single life. There are some beautiful moments, some head-shaking ones too – but especially in the early sections of Henry’s life and Alma’s childhood, there’s a whole lot of life happening. The book comes alive on Henry’s voyages and, in my favorite scene from the whole book, at a massive dinner party at White Acre (the fictional estate on the Schuylkill owned by the Whittakers) where a drunken scholar sets the partygoers on the lawn in an approximation of the solar system and young Alma is dispatched with a torch to be a comet. It’s an amazing scene, full of light and warmth and that magic that comes from being a small child at the grown-up party. Remember that feeling? We don’t get to have it nowadays – but it sure is fun to remember.
I will say, though, that as Alma gets older… she gets less interesting. She is diligent and determined, although often oblivious to the feelings & things happening around her – but she ends up being a bit… well… bland. Even as she embarks upon her serious scientific endeavors (“The Curator of Mosses” is another well-struck bell of a phrase – Gilbert has a talent with those), those very endeavors seem to reinforce her solitude and her simpleness. I don’t use that term, by the way, to imply stupidity – she’s quite clearly very intelligent – but rather to imply that her life is (to her eyes, for most of the novel) modestly uncomplicated. It’s only in the second half of the novel that things begin to unravel for her, after one too many poorly understood interactions – and this is where the novel, for me, gets a bit too much to bear. SPOILERS of a sort may follow.
See, she meets a lovely younger man named Ambrose and after she marries him… well, I for one found there to be a bit too much repressed desire for sex here. Alma spends a significant portion of the second half of the book just basically trying to not even have sex but she really wants to give somebody a blowjob. This is the curse of reading erotica as a child, kids. Anyway, while I appreciated the whole “she’s repressed and so pours it into her work” thing… I gotta say, it felt a little bit much to me. When she heads to Tahiti, it’s painfully obvious what’s going to end up happening and it all felt… not unnecessary but just over-much. But the book sort of rushes to an over-much place even after the sex thing is just a memory – because Alma finds herself squarely in the middle of the great scientific revolution of the late 1850s: the discovery of evolution. And it bothered me. I can understand the impulse to do what Gilbert did here, as there have been many unsung women who came up with things long before menfolk did it – but it felt forced and inauthentic here. It felt like it was trying to tackle a larger issue instead of being content to just make Alma a really talented botanist in her own right. She didn’t need to be hitched to this other thing, interesting as it may’ve been in theory.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5. I was surprised to find this book to be so… well-constructed. It read smoothly and entertained me, especially in the earlier sections. Perhaps it was going in with low expectations but I found that it was a pleasant reading experience. It was not particularly memorable – although I do hope to keep that image of young Alma as a comet in the midst of the celestial dinner party as long as I can – but it also wasn’t remotely painful. It may sound like damning with faint praise, but this was just fine. Sometimes, it’s more than okay – it’s great, actually – to be just fine.