I’m no fan of Gilbert; I think Eat, Pray, Love & Committed represent something like the worst trends in modern memoir writing. But this book got a tremendous amount of critical acclaim last year, so I decided to pick it up. And I’m glad I did. It’s a historical novel taking place in the eighteenth & nineteenth centuries and it’s mostly focused on Alma Whittaker, a young girl born into privilege and wealth that becomes fascinated with biology and, in particular, the study of mosses. Yes, that’s what I said. Alma is a fantastic character and Gilbert really sketches her in very well. She’s a pragmatic, intelligent woman in an age when women were expected to be neither and Gilbert manages to explore her life and character in really great ways. The book is engrossing for its entire 500 page length and given that it’s about a woman who mostly just studies moss, that’s a real achievement. The side characters are all really wonderfully sketched, particularly Ambrose Pike, an illustrator that comes to have a special place in the rest of Alma’s life once he’s come into the story. It’s a book that’s sort of thematically about a lot of different things; faith versus science, certainly, and strength versus weakness. Perhaps most of all, it’s simply about the uncomfortable, elusive differences between those who survive and those who don’t. Right toward the end, the book takes a kind of a weird turn in the fifth section; the ending to the fourth section of the book would really have made a phenomenal ending – it’s a powerhouse climax. But there are pleasures to be had in the final section, even if some of the plotting there leaves a little to be desired. But all in all, I found this to be a really wonderful, well-written, witty, heart-breaking picture of an ordinary woman facing the struggles and travails we all face. It’s honestly a really great read. Highly recommended. 4 out of 4 stars.
tl;dr – a richly drawn character study of an astounding female scientist facing heartbreak and struggles in nineteenth century America; emotionally engaging and compellingly interesting. 4 stars.