“What a grim view! I wish you did not consider our lives so bleakly. On the whole of things, Alma, I still see more wonder in the world than suffering.”
“I know you do,” said Alma, “and that is why I worry for you. You are an idealist, which means that you are destined to be disappointed, and perhaps even wounded. You seek a gospel of benevolence and miracle, which leaves no room for the sorrows of existence …Moreover, you make me feel like a horrid little marplot, because I sit here making such dull arguments and because I cannot live in the same shining city upon the hill that you inhabit.”
On the cusp of the 19th century, a bold and inquisitive woman, by name of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of an eminent botanical explorer, is born.
Alma is a heroine unlike any I’ve encountered before – and perhaps the prime reason I am so drawn to this book as to read it twice in one summer, and once again the next summer, and to find it no less impressive than the first time I set off on the voyage through its ebullient pages. I have just finished reading this book for the third time, and think it’s high time I sang its praises in a review.
There is no more apt word for this novel than panoramic – spanning from 1760 with the birth of Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, to the late 1800’s up to the end of Alma’s life, and the beginnings of a new era of understanding with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is a novel about the pleasures of discovery – scientific, personal, sensual, and spiritual. Above all else, it is Gilbert’s weaving of these manifold forms of discovery, which truly captures the exploratory spirit of the century.
Besides the abundant historical, geographical, and botanical details, which lend the tale an immersing verisimilitude; it is Alma’s life, her personal dreams, disappointments, heartbreaks and hankerings that make the novel so engaging. Alma is a woman thirsty for knowledge. While university was still very much inaccessible to a woman in 1820, Alma prowls after knowledge nevertheless, persisting in her quest for understanding in the comforts of her mansion home in Philadelphia, built by her preposterously rich father. But despite her enviable economic privilege and unexcelled education, Alma yearns for something more.
Our female lead is questing, curious, libidinous, insecure, obstinate, dubious, vulnerable and foolish, all at once. Unyieldingly intelligent, and at times self-absorbed and impulsive, Alma Whittaker positively throbs with life, is the coal-and-ice heroine through which we can feel the red-blooded pulse of history.
But this story has so much more to offer in character esprit than Alma. It is a story about her father, and her mother; her adopted sister, Prudence, and their kooky comrade, Retta. It is about the stalwart housekeeper, about Alma’s frail first love, and the bold cast of characters she meets on her travels, as she sails from Philadelphia to Tahiti, from Tahiti to Amsterdam, and many places in between. Most of all, however, it is about the man who irreparably alters her as she falls in love with him.
This book was never meant to be a romance, in the conventional sense. There is certainly a love story, but one fraught with discrepancy, marred by an insurmountable discord between ideas and worldviews that ultimately ends in carnage. Alma and Ambrose’s irreconcilable differences, henceforth, becomes the crux of this tale about a wider ongoing conflict between science and religion in the 19th century.
There is no conventional happy ending, either, but nor does the story come to a completely bleak or cataclysmic closure. It speaks to the marvels of the natural world – the miseries, too – and the fleeting wonder that is life in what Alma designates “Human Time”.
I like that Alma can be read in so many different ways – as any well-rounded character should be. Personally, I read her as more selfish and frustrating the third time around – perhaps because I had the foresight of knowing where her choices would lead, whereas at first, I was completely swept up, empathising more with the disastrous decisions one can make whilst in the clutch of heartbreak or intense disappointment.
Why else do I love this story so much? I love that I can feel the pulse of history . I love every one of the characters – intensely flawed, headstrong, ridiculous, persistent, weak, deluded, wise, repressed – and all of their unique idiosyncrasies. I love how vividly Gilbert paints the marvels of the universe – whereby even something as apparently mundane as moss can be as awe-inspiring as the cosmos (indeed, that it is its own cosmos), whereby wonder lies everywhere in nature, and that we can see it, if only we pay close enough attention.
Marriage kerfuffles, vibrant dialogue, and slick wit make this book about so much more than Victorian science. It is as entertaining as any good period drama, with a good dose of philosophical spiel, and a thoroughly modern candour. It is also breathtakingly honest about sexuality – unfortunately for Alma, a taboo topic in Victorian society – but certainly not one from which Gilbert shies in this very contemporary telling.
In prose that is buoyant and peppy without detracting, Gilbert tells an open-hearted tale about exploration and wonder, with very real, warm-blooded characters whose aspirations and adversities will garner the sympathies of any reader. This book may be about science, but it is suffused with a certain kind of magic; in which an acute sense of the unattainable, the elusory, and the divine lingers, indefatigable, even at the heart of Alma’s avid quest for certainty and knowledge.