This is a long, wonderfully absorbing, old-fashioned novel, the kind to curl up with by the fire and just immerse yourself in. I hesitated about reading it because I had avoided Eat, Pray, Love, thinking it sounded too self-indulgent. But this is a masterful achievement, the product of exhaustive and meticulous research and gifted storytelling. It is the life story of one of the year's most fascinating protagonists, Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 and living into her 80s. A very bright child, she becomes a brilliant botanist. Yes, there's a lot of botany, but there is so much more. We are transported from Philadelphia to London, Peru, Tahiti, and Amsterdam, and we meet all the colorful and complex people in Alma's life: her father and mother, her sisters Prudence and Retta, who have their own stories, the men in Alma's life, personal and professional. And all of this is embedded in the history of the times.
Some more praise:
"Unlike anything Gilbert has ever written. The book's heroine is Alma Whittaker, the brilliant, restless daughter of an imperious botanical explorer. Its prose has the elegant sheen of a 19th-century epic, but its concerns--the intersection of science and faith, the feminine struggle for fulfillment, the dubious rise of the pharmaceutical industry--are essentially modern...Gilbert has returned to her roots in fiction and written the sort of rip-roaring tale that would have been considered entertainment for the masses 150 years ago."
--The New York Times Magazine
"The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert's 20-year career: a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist."
--The Wall Street Journal
"Gilbert has mulled, from the confines of her desk, the correlations of nature, the principle that connects a grain of sand to a galaxy, to create a character who does the same - who makes the study of existence her life's purpose. And in doing so, she has written the novel of a lifetime."
--O, The Oprah Magazine
"Gilbert has returned to fiction, and clearly she's reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities...[an] unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form."--"Publishers Weekly"
"Rich, highly satisfying...Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century...Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and learning, this is a must-read."