I picked up this book because I like Elizabeth Gilbert’s nonfiction (I’ve read “The Last American Man,” “Eat, Pray, Love,” and “Committed”). I haven’t read any of her novels, so I wanted to see what she could do with fiction. Also, I wanted to see how/whether she could make botany interesting. Caution: this review contains spoilers, so if you don’t want to know how the novel ends, it’s best to stop reading now.
The story follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a scientifically inclined child born into a wealthy American family in the 1800s. Alma’s life is so lonely and sterile in the first part of the novel that I began to wonder why I was continuing to read. Finally, when she meets a botanical artist, Ambrose, things look up for her. Gilbert does an admirable job taking readers along with Alma’s joy and hopes/fears at this point, so that when they come crashing down, so do readers’ hearts. I liked how Alma dealt with life’s disappointments by grinding them under her boot heel. That’s a philosophy worth emulating.
Midway through the novel, when Alma is casting about for things to occupy her time, I found myself asking – why doesn’t she try to help someone else for a change? That thought doesn’t come to her at that point and she turns instead to a solitary life of studying mosses. I was thankful to see altruistic motivation finally come to her after her father dies.
So how does Gilbert make botany interesting? She combines it with a life story, sex, and spiritualism. Gilbert uses Alma’s situation to explore the dichotomies between science and the soul, and how a woman can endure a lifetime of sexual frustration, yet still function in the everyday household and business duties required of her.
I want to share a quote from the story that particularly resonated with me: “These are two things I have always observed to be in singular accord: super-celestial thoughts and subterranean conduct.” I have found this to be true, as well. Think of all the televangelists and others in positions of authority who have been brought down by sexual scandals. But I am meandering…
One thing that bothered me is that when Alma was in Tahiti, she did not even think of showing a drawing of the mysterious Tahitian boy to someone. She did mention there were some facial drawings of him that weren’t lewd. Showing one to someone she trusted, like the reverend or the ‘wild boys,’ would have saved her a lot of time trekking around the island. She could have said she found it in Ambrose’s things and was wondering who his friend was. Gilbert didn’t even have Alma consider showing someone a drawing, which bothered me and seemed unrealistic (even for fiction!)
Another thing that bothered me that one of Alma’s major goals in life was to give a man a blowjob. I mean, seriously?! The feminist in me is just so affronted by that. Alma’s character is already so intelligent, capable and self-sacrificing. I would have been much more comfortable if her goal in life was to have a man give HER oral sex. (Smirk.)
The dust jacket description says that events take place at a galloping pace. I wouldn’t say this is true. The pace is more like that of a pachyderm than a horse. Both Alma and her father are so deliberate in their speech and actions that all sides of an issue are explored before action is taken. This is hardly galloping. But the good side of this is that you come to know the characters intimately.
I ended up wanting SOMETHING good to happen for Alma – better than performing a blowjob on a lovely male Tahitian in a cave (which is not bad, but still….) Near the end, there’s another glimmer of hope when she develops her own theory of natural selection. But does she publish it? No. Like the aforementioned slow-moving pachyderm, she has to investigate all sides of her theory, which takes time. She’s not satisfied that it provides the answer to everything everyone would ever want to know about how the world works, so she lets the document sit in a valise under her couch, until it’s too late and Darwin beats her to the punch.
In a Hollywood ending, Alma would have published her theory to great fame and finally be recognized. But since this is not a Hollywood book, it ends with Alma being satisfied that just one person recognizes her for what she is. This was a good ending for the circumstances, and refreshing in some ways, but it’s much too realistic. If I wanted to realism, I would just plod along in my own daily fight for survival and grinding of life’s disappointments under my boot heels. I read to escape or to see characters overcome obstacles and succeed. However, Gilbert did manage to make mosses interesting.
Overall, I give it a mixed review. There’s no question that Gilbert knows her mosses and how the scientific mind works. Her character development is outstanding as is her insight into the human condition. I just had problems with certain aspects of the story that didn’t fit my personal escapist needs.