Just finished reading 500 pages narrative story spanning over more than 100 years during 18th and 19th century of an intelligent, single, plain-faced woman who spends her lifetime understanding the creation of mankind through study of botany, mainly Mosses.
The book is divided into five parts.
The first part of the book takes us through the adventures of Henry Whittaker, a plant thief whose boyhood punishment is to send him off to far off place in a madcap voyage of Captain Cook. He returns to make a successful career importing exotic plants to America.
The interest is aroused from first few pages itself. Alma Whittaker is born in rich family to an intelligent mother whose first prayer on seeing her child is that “she grow up to be healthy and sensible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly powdered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gambling tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to savage Indian, or in any way, whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family.”
The prayers are answered.
Alma is the person; we begin to love as the story unfolds. During her childhood, she is tireless, uncomplaining and curious to understand the ways of the world. “she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance” Not only did she have clever parents but she also had the entire estate of White acres and the proper resources to explore at her will that helps sharpen her vision towards mysteries of life. Her father advises her to always be self-sufficient and to always have one final bribe. “You must always carry enough gold on you to buy back your life in case of kidnapping. Sew it into your hems, if you must, but never be without money.”
At 16, she chances upon a book ‘With A Grain Of Salt’ that makes her mild jolt wildly. She makes frequent visits to the binding closet to fulfill her sexual longings. The repeated details of her visits to blinding closet and her acts of masturbation are unnecessary and just lengthen the story.
She is over-shadowed by the beauty of her adopted sister Prudence, who marries their tutor, Arthur Dixon and her best friend Retta Snow marries George Hawke, the person whom she secretly loved. What I fail to understand is why she cannot find a husband to love her? What has physical looks to do with love? Disappointed, she says “Let us be honest with ourselves. Who will ever put a ring on these fishwife’s hands of mine? Who will ever kiss this encyclopedia of a head?”
Though this novel veers into far-fetched, even stranger territory in its second half, we continue to root for our heroine. Alma marries Ambrose Pike, a younger man, an eccentric orchid illustrator. He tells her of the work of Jacob Boehme, "a sixteenth century cobbler from Germany who had mystical visions about plants...who believed in 'the signature of all things'...namely that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth."
Sadly, the sex-less marriage fails and she send him off to Tahiti to her father’s Vanilla plantation to save her from embarrassment. When he dies under mysterious circumstance, she follows his footsteps to uncover the truth about Ambroise rejection of her. In Tahila, she lives a simple life with just one goal to finding the truth.
Eventually Alma finds her way to Amsterdam, where she rekindles her relationship with her mother’s Dutch family and becomes the master of mosses at the Botanical Gardens.
Elizabeth Gilbert has done a lot of research, her facts on voyages of Captain Cook, on biology of Mosses and the demography of 19th century is visually elaborated.
The narration is interesting although most of the other characters are weird with strange habits and even stranger names. We have Arthur Dixon, who “gave every inclination of being a man, who had been born sitting up, wearing tight-fitting waistcoat and wool breeches, holding a dense book, and sighing unhappily. If he had urges, where and where did he release them?” We have Prudence, who lives in utter penury, we have fluttering Retta snow, Reverend Welles of unplumbed depths, Tomorrow Morning, the hero of the natives of Tahiti, etc
Nevertheless, the tale is riveting making the book unputdownable and when you reach to the last page of the book, you want to read some more…
Just one reading is not enough, I am going to read it again