Book Quote:

“Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.”

Book Review:

Review by Betsey Van Horn  (Dec 5, 2013)

From the opening pages, it is evident that Gilbert can write with lyricism, confidence, and substance. I was afraid that her mass popularity would lead to a dumbed down book with pandering social/political agendas or telegraphed notions. I am thrilled to conclude that this was not the case. Gilbert is a superb writer who allows her main characters to spring forth as organically as the natural world that they live in. This is a book of well-considered people of the times, who are emblematic of daring and discerning ideas, as well as an absorbing story that will keep the pages flying. The 18th and 19th century comes to life, and botany keeps the composite parts anchored to the earth. It is a both beautiful and intermittently appalling story of humanity and nature.

The book begins with British ex-pat Henry Whittaker, a boy of humble origins, who, by the time he is an adult in the 19th century, turns himself into a captain of industry in the botanical and pharmaceutical industry, particularly quinine. As a boy, he pilfered from the Royal Botanical Kew Gardens and sold to others, and showed his mettle as an entrepreneur. The director, Sir Joseph Banks, eventually apprehended him. Whittaker’s penance was to be sent on faraway travels, in order to prove himself worthy and edify himself in the realm of plants.

When Whittaker returned, he made it his life’s work to eclipse Banks and become a wealthy self-made industrialist of the natural world. He got himself an educated Dutch wife, left Europe for good, and settled in Western Pennsylvania, where he built an elaborate estate that truly did rival the Kew Gardens, called White Acre. All alike envied his ostentatious mansion on the hill, and were impressed by his breathtaking, unparalleled gardens. He sired one daughter, Alma, and adopted another, Prudence. Whittaker became one of the richest men in North America, or anywhere. But, more important than riches, to him, was the power to command others, and the talent and skill to master your work. Education was the tool to that end. Therefore, his children received a scholarly education at home.

Henry’s prominence on the pages segues into his daughter’s, Alma. The beautiful Prudence becomes an outspoken abolitionist, while Alma grows into a scholarly, tall, large-boned, homely, and privately carnal woman who becomes the flourishing main character. I would list her as one of my favorite protagonists of contemporary times, as unforgettable as Teresita Urrea of The Hummingbird’s Daughter, although of polar sensibilities. Alma is so fleshed out that I can smell her, and every moment in her life is organically rendered. As she becomes her father’s daughter as a scientist, (but with a gentler disposition), the reader is taken ever further into her inner and outer journeys. She is not just a botanist and taxonomist, but in many ways, a philosopher, a noble thinker, with a sexual and sensual hunger.

Gilbert doesn’t portray Alma as flawless or unbelievable. Rather, Alma is a construct of her environment and her gifted mind. She is also metaphorically imprisoned by the life of a proper woman in the 19th century. However…

Alma’s portrait is the fruit of this elegantly written, lyrically cadenced, engrossing tale. Gilbert braids in the enigma of life from botany to the human body, and folds in science, mysticism, spirituality, psycho-sexuality, all in a vibrantly flowing historical novel. Some of the characters make a brief or lucid appearance, and then fade, but Alma grows more luminous with each passing chapter. A few sections focus on scientific philosophies and the question of creationism and evolution (the way a discussion would happen in the 1800’s), but it fits radiantly into this story. But, mostly, it is Alma who pollinates this ripe and exhilarating tale. I still see her bending over a leaf, or examining moss with a microscope, or hunched over her scholarly tomes and writing her books on the mysteries of plant life. Being at her father’s beck and call, but carving out a solitary but teeming life.

The title of the book refers that all life contains a divine code or print, and was put forth by a 16th century German cobbler and early botanist, Jacob Boehme, one rejected by the Whittakers, for the most part, as medieval nonsense. He had mystical visions about plants, and believed there was a divine code in “every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code.”
You can see it in a curling leaf, a nesting bird, and when the stamens of one plant stick it to its receptacle. Every unique living creature, according to Boehme, contains the eponymous title. Alma meets an orchid painter who embodies this belief, and who pulls her into the world of mysticism. As an explorer and thinker, she is compelled to understand this notion.

Alma’s professional and personal life leads her to contemplate the “struggle for existence.” As the reader follows Alma on her odyssey of the natural world and beyond, the wonder of life becomes ever transcendent–that “those who survived the world shaped it—even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them.”

This exquisite novel feels like a gift to humanity. It has heart, soul, and earthiness. And Alma.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 407 readers
PUBLISHER: Viking Adult; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
REVIEWER: Betsey Van Horn
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Elizabeth Gilbert
EXTRAS: Reading Guide and Excerpt
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December 5, 2013 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: , , , ,  · Posted in: Character Driven, Facing History, Family Matters, Reading Guide, United States, US Mid-Atlantic

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