Oh, I loved this book so much. It’s right up there Cathy Buchanan’s The Painted Girls and ahead of Amy Bloom’s Away and Sarah Dunant’s Blood and Beauty as one of the best works of historical fiction I’ve read lately. Gilbert’s main character, Alma, is a quiet woman living a quiet life in nineteenth-century America, but it’s by no means a conventional life. Her father, a genuine self-made man, is hugely wealthy and runs a vast botanical/pharmaceutical business. Her mother is a quiet genius who gives Alma the education her father never had. Alma has a ferocious intelligence and becomes a gifted botanist in her own right, but she also wants more than her secure home life offers — love, passion, true companionship. Finally someone comes into her world who seems to offer the possibility of all three — and Alma can’t resist. As a result, her life is turned upside down.
In creating Alma and her world, Gilbert resists all the easy stereotypes writers fall into when writing about smart, strong women in ages past. Alma is brilliant but she is also completely and believably a woman of her time, sharing the assumptions and the cultural baggage of the world in which she has grown up. It takes tremendous courage and effort for her to finally move beyond that world, but she does, and the results are satisfying. Not in a romantic, happily-ever-after sense, but in more of a “the best revenge is living well” kind of sense. Alma does live, and lives well.
The novel covers a huge span of time — it begins in Alma’s father Henry’s childhood and ends when Alma herself is a very old woman — and as a result there are long passages where Gilbert has to tell, rather than show, what happens. For the most part she handles these passages well, using the device of listing a number of vivid things that either Henry or Alma saw, or experienced, or did during those years, giving us tiny vignettes and slices of scenes that flip past like a slideshow as we move from one to another of the novel’s key scenes. By the very end the device wears a little thin, as many readers may feel that the story goes on too long after what is probably its climax, and summarizes too much detail about Alma’s later years. But this was a flaw I was more than ready to forgive in a book that charmed me as utterly as this one did. Great, great historical fiction. I loved it.