I cringe to think of how many hours I spent reading this book that I didn’t particularly like yet couldn’t put down—my reaction is an odd combination, yet it seems to fit because this book was an odd combination of mediocre writing, fascinating botany, a too often predictable plot, and often highly engaging sub plots. I’ll begin with the writing: After reading nearly 100 pages, I was still waiting for the story to start. I felt like I was getting the necessary background information to frame the story, but I was not yet in the story. Gilbert’s writing style in this book is one that I advise my students never to use. Do not tell the story; show the story. She goes on for pages upon pages of telling us about the characters. First about Henry Whittaker and his childhood and eventually about his daughter Alma. A perfect example: “Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest” (51)” I want to see Alma’s cleverness, I want to hear her speak, listen to her arguments. I don’t want to be told by the author that this is what her character is like. I want the author to put us there in the scene with her characters, use dialogue to reveal their personalities, move them around in real time, not in summary statements. Finally…we get a reprieve from all this summary stuff and her characters come to life in various places where she creates an actual scene where they talk, move, interact. But this pattern goes on throughout the entire 500 page book—pages of summary followed by a short scene. The balance should fall the other way: well developed scenes interspersed with short summaries to cover large blocks of time. Enough about the writing, I suppose (it should be noted that I really didn’t like her previous two books—both nonfiction—so in comparison, this one is a huge improvement).
The story itself was interesting, though at times a bit predictable. Taking in place in the 1700-1800’s, it chronicles Alma’s father and Alma through her entire life in and around the family’s botany estate in Philadelphia where her father imports and exports plants, and Alma studies botany, eventually becoming an expert in mosses and later in life writing her own version of Darwin’s On Origin of Species at nearly the same time as Darwin worked on his own. The various subplots such as her sister Prudence becoming an abolitionist and Alma’s intense study of mosses were intriguing and could have used further development. Other subplots and/or characters like her friend Retta and Alma’s eventual husband Ambrose weren’t as compelling. Overall, it seemed that Gilbert had too many different ideas, characters and paths in which to branch the story (from botany to religion/spirituality to evolution to commerce to the culture of various developing countries). Though the wealth of research needed to write this novel is most impressive, I think the story could have used more focus and depth and less panorama and breadth. But maybe that’s how family sagas go. This particular genre of fiction has never been a favorite of mine. Or maybe I loved The Thorn Birds so much as a young reader that no family saga will ever compare.