I didn’t know what to expect when I picked out this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of Eat, Pray, Love. I was looking for an audiobook that was available without waiting from the library website. All I knew is that it was a historical novel, telling the story of the fictional Alma Whitaker.
Alma was “born with the century,” in 1800, the daughter of Henry Whitaker, a man who was born poor but made a fortune in the business of plants. Alma is bright and hard working, but not at all pretty. She takes after her father and begins to study botany, at a time where women are generally only taught the finer arts of music and sewing.
Alma makes her way in a man’s world, never catching the attention of a man in a romantic way, but achieving successes with her research in botany. But she’s lonely, she wants companionship, and perhaps most of all, she wants intimacy.
The novel follows Alma throughout her entire life, weaving an intricate story of characters, showing the joy and tragedy of a life whose outcome you don’t always get to choose. Is it enough to find a career when most women simply find themselves to be the mother of children and in charge of a household? Do we ever really know if others around us are happy or truly satisfied with their lot in life? Is it possible to accept the pain of losing our loved ones? Do we ever stop yearning for that which we do not have?
Alma’s life takes her from her father’s home all the way to Tahiti, as she seeks new plants, but also the answers to the questions she has about the human condition. Along the way, she encounters so many others, who are flawed, imperfect and richly complex, all just trying to do what Alma is doing – find happiness.
Gilbert’s writing is excellent. Amazing. Despite what might seem at first a dry topic, this is a must read. Although it is long, I was entranced until the very last page.