When this book arrived for review I had a mixed reaction. I thought, Elizabeth Gilbert, yay! Because I very much enjoyed Committed and think she is generally a Good Thing. But then I read the blurb and I thought, a 19th century epic novel about botany? Well, hmmm, maybe. It didn’t seem a likely topic somehow for an author who has always seemed to have such modern concerns. And it is a very big book and I can be lazy about big books sometimes. So imagine my pleasure to find, in the closing pages of this novel, that I was really sorry to see it end. This was altogether a much more convincing and and enjoyable riposte to the 19th century novel than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled off something quite special here.
The story belongs to Alma Whittaker, first born daughter of an lowly English thief turned pharmaceutical giant in Philadelphia and his education-crazy, strict and starchy Dutch wife. Alma inherits Henry’s passionate, determined genes and her mother’s love of order and reason. Crammed with a classical education, obliged to dine with collectors and specialists every evening at her parents’ table, and free to wander around her huge family estate, full of prime botanical specimens shipped in from all over the world, Alma grows up with science in her blood and a knowledge of botany to rival any expert. This turns out to be useful as she grows up big, strong and not terribly attractive, with a shock of red hair. When her parents adopt the beautiful orphan, Prudence, Alma is forced to realise that she is lacking something terribly important. But look, in this excerpt, what Elizabeth Gilbert does with such choice material:
One winter’s day, when the girls were about fifteen years old, an old friend of Henry’s from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens came to visit White Acre after many years away. Standing in the entryway, still shaking the snow off his cloas, the guest shouted, “Henry Whittaker, you weasel! Show me that famous daughter of yours I’ve been hearing so much about!”
The girls were nearby, transcribing botanical notes in the drawing room. They could hear every word.
Henry, in his great, crashing voice, said, “Alma! Come instantly! You are requested to be seen!”
Alma rushed into the atrium, bright with expectation. The stranger looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He said, “No, you bloody fool – that’s not what I meant! I want to see the pretty one!”
Without a trace of rebuke, Henry replied, “Oh, so you’re intrested in Our Little Exquisite, then? Prudence, come in here! You are requested to be seen!”
Prudence slipped through the entryway and stood beside Alma, whose feet were now sinking into the floor, as into a thick and terrible swamp.
“There we are!” said the guest, looking over Prudence as though pricing her out. “Oh, she is splendid, isn’t she? I had wondered. I had suspected everyone might be exaggerating.”
Henry waved his hand dismissively. “Ah you all make too much of Prudence,” he said. “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”
So, you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally.
This is what I loved about this novel. So many historical novels have these anachronistic heroines in order to portray strong women. But Gilbert takes a situation which happens to create a strong woman, one who is not endowed with the beauty that was a woman’s main marketable skill, and she gives her a brain instead, and a robustness that is wholly organic, and a plausible passion for science. Then she tells her story in a wonderful voice: straight, entertaining, informative, cunning. Alma is unlucky in love, but she’s prepared to take that on the chin. She settles down to a life devoted to the study of mosses until, nearing fifty, a visitor to White Acres turns her life upside down, and not in a way she could have predicted. I think this was the best, most original, most surprising love affair I’ve read this year. It’s also a battle between science (the word ‘scientist’ being coined during the course of the story’s history) and romanticism, a battle which of course no one wins. But it sets Alma off on a voyage to the other side of the world, and towards what might be considered her greatest triumph and her greatest tragedy.
Thematically, this novel is immensely clever. The 19th century is understood to be a time dominated by what we now call ‘grand narratives’; that’s to say this era believed that we were still heading towards the perfection of mankind and that there were various ways to tell the story of human history that stitched it up neatly and coherently – religion and science in particular were thought to hold the key to understanding all human life. All the strands of this well-organised novel come together in the theory intended to explain the development of biological life on the planet: Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Alma identifies the problem with that theory, and she is left holding it to the end of the book, ready, as it were, to give one big tug and watch the whole thing unravel. It seems so appropriate that, as an anomaly throughout her life, she should hold this awareness, but equally appropriate that, as an anomaly who has happily found her place and her purpose, she should be too respectful to apply it.
Apparently, it took Elizabeth Gilbert three and a half years to do just the research for this novel, and it shows. There were times when I wished her zeal for non-fiction had been curbed just a little. But there is so much entertainment in this novel, so much that is beautifully observed and well written that I forgave her. After all, any reader who approaches a contemporary version of the 19th century novel is going to have to expect a few digressions and be prepared to settle down to enjoy them. This is definitely the kind of book you want to get lost in; give it time, take it slowly and just enjoy the treat in store. This is character-driven fiction of the best sort.