The BUZZ: The much-anticipated epic novel from the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Finalist for the Wellcome Book Prize.
The GIST: Alma Whittaker is the exceptional daughter of two shrewd, industrious parents. Born in 1800, she grows up on their new sprawling, colorful estate, White Acre, in Philadelphia. She is expected to improve her mind and self without limits, but her gender at the turn of the century inhibits her progress and fulfillment. Lacking physical beauty but blessed with a keen mind and some wealth, she possesses a small amount of freedom to create her own life. Botany is the only avenue open to her. She studies it with passion and purpose, down to its finest elements, becoming a respected authority on mosses. The microcosm of these tiny landscapes provides a metaphor for Alma’s existence.
The WRITING: Vivid and powerful. Gilbert’s sentences are appetizing, in tone and description. She creates likable, interesting characters with whole personalities. I felt as if Alma were a real historical figure, and that the author must have read her letters and journals. Alma’s father, mother, adopted sister, housekeeper and other individuals in the story are equally compelling. Gilbert cares about what makes people tick and does a clever exploration of her characters’ inclinations. She also does a fine job of solidly planting the reader’s feet in luscious settings all over the world.
BUY or BORROW?: Borrow. For all of Gilbert’s gifts in portraiture, the plot didn’t satisfy me. Its greatest events are from real history, including the adventures of Captain Cook’s voyages, the dawning of the theory of evolution, the birth of the pharmaceutical industry, and the turmoil of the abolitionist movement. Vibrant, well-researched backdrops for sure, but lacking some surprises along the way. I disappointedly predicted what lay on the next page in most chapters. A few unexpected revelations would have filled up the book for me.
EXTRAS: Check out Gilbert’s useful advice for aspiring writers: http://www.elizabethgilbert.com/thoughts-on-writing/