Henry Whittaker, son of a gardener on a wealthy English estate, claws his way to riches using his wits, knowledge, and sheer bravado. By the time his daughter, Alma, is born in Pennsylvania, Henry—though barely literate—is one of the richest men in the world. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, is a well-educated, forceful Dutch woman who makes sure that Alma receives a top-notch classical education. At age nine, Alma understands calculus, Latin, and, more than anything else, botany.
Alma’s life takes a turn when her parents adopt the abandoned daughter of one of their tenants. Prudence is the same age as Alma and is radiantly beautiful, and for the first time in her life, Alma realizes that she is plain and unattractive. Despite the satisfaction she derives from the brilliant intellectual life that her father cultivates on their estate, Alma yearns for love, but hides the affection she feels for a family friend. Late in her life, she meets a man who is different from the scientists she has known, a man who revels in the spiritual world, and who seems to understand her desire to discover that unknown quality that underlies all of life and ties all living things together.
Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, has shown great writing prowess in following her memoir with this epic historical fiction novel spanning several generations and continents. Even though Alma is not the most relatable heroine in fiction, the reader’s heart is bound up in her search for significance and her scientific mind’s desire to understand human relationships. She is brilliant, ingenuous, and resilient. I must admit that the ending was not what I had hoped, but it was fitting for this woman who devoted her life to endless research. Gilbert’s writing was polished and appealing all the way through, and even the artwork—botanical prints from Alma’s age—lent the novel authenticity and beauty.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.