Ms. Gilbert returns to fiction with this story of self-discovery. Alma Whittaker has an extraordinary upbringing, the result of her fortune-seeking father and her strict classicist mother. Alma herself has considerable intellectual gifts, which, combined with her ungainly physique and unusual family, isolate her from other young people. Her eventual marriage is spiritually but not sexually fulfilling, so Alma continues her botanical studies, stumbling upon (but not publishing) her own theory of evolution, and finding by the end of her life possibly as much familial and academic respect as she could hope.
Although a well-researched novel, I was not personally captivated by the descriptions of mosses, orchids and other flora. It’s a pity, because Ms. Gilbert is so clearly enthusiastic. Obviously she has invested time, energy and effort in learning about these plants…but then, my favorite green plants are cacti (so little upkeep!). Alma can see herself reflected in the mosses for which she cares – intricate little worlds, moving at a snail’s pace, but capable of great things in due course.
In the end, though, I found that I couldn’t care very much about Alma. I was hurrying to reach the end of the book, and the relationship I found the most compelling was that of Alma with her dog. Her intellect was astonishing but entirely invested in a subject – botany – that I just couldn’t enjoy. Yes, there is commentary here about the male gaze and the (still) uphill battle of female scientists for recognition. It’s certainly deserving of attention.
This book has received stellar reviews elsewhere. It’s not my favorite genre, and if I’m being honest, it’s possible that I was just hoping for a second Eat, Pray, Love. I’d even settle for a second Committed. Although I do have a new appreciation for the moss I added to my terrarium.
Photo credit: http://terrarilicious.blogspot.com/