The writing in this novel is lovely, which goes a long way to help retain one’s interest through a detailed examination of the intellectual interests of the Victorian Age. Whether the author is describing the intricacies of orchids or the specifics of evolution, she never seems didactic but rather pulls us right into the midst of her vividly-constructed landscapes. Her absorbing narrative enables us to feel as if we too are walking through an arboretum, or enduring privations in Tahiti, or kneeling by a boulder, contemplating the miracle of how moss and mineral become travertine marble, eventually making the journey from a cliff of exposed limestone to places like St. Peter’s Basilica.
The story follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the large, unattractive, and ungraceful daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, emigrants from Europe now living in prosperity in Philadelphia. Henry was an unrivaled arborist with a knack for recognizing economic opportunities, and took advantage of one to further the other: “Money followed him around like a small, excited dog.”
Alma was raised in comfort but without much warmth; her parents believed in mental stimulation rather than emotional coddling. Beatrix “nursed a hard suspicion of passion, exaggeration, and beauty, putting her confidence only in that which was solid and credible, and always trusting acquired wisdom over impulsive instinct.” Alma turns out similarly, with a love of and devotion to botany she learned from her parents. But she also has a restlessness and sense of emptiness that has no outlet, until she discovers masturbation.
Masturbation, as unsavory as it is to read about, is an apt metaphor for Alma’s self-absorption and her inability to relate to any human besides herself. Besides her sessions with herself in a locked closet, the closest she gets to passion or even empathy is with her mosses:
“… rising no more than an inch above the surface of the boulder, she saw a great and tiny forest. Nothing moved within this mossy world. She peered at it so closely that she could smell it — dank and rich and old. Gently Alma pressed her hand into this tight little timberland. It compacted itself under her palm and then sprang back to form without complaint. . . . It appeared to have its own weather. . . . This was the entire world. This was bigger than a world. This was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes. This was planetary and vast. These were ancient, unexplored galaxies, rolling forth in front of her.”
At age 48, Alma finally meets a man, Ambrose Pike, who appears to want to share his life with her, but on his terms, which aren’t the same as those for which Alma had been hoping. In essence, and as part of a Pinocchio-like plot thread that runs through the story, Alma longs to be a “real girl” like others. But she doesn’t know how to relate to people, how to communicate about anything but intellectual matters, or what it means to be in a “relationship.” When Ambrose disappoints her, she punishes him. She knows a great deal about the world she can study in books, but not a thing about real life. And in the end, she must confront the question of how the “significance” of a life is determined, and whether or not her life can be defined in this way.
Discussion: The book takes its title from a sixteenth-century theologist and mystic named Jacob Boehme, who believed in “‘the signature of all things’ – namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed…”
Alma doesn’t believe in anything non-empirical, but Boehme’s philosophy acts like a bit of plastic overlay to the story. There is, for example, the matter of Prudence, the adopted sister of Alma. Prudence is ethereally lovely on the outside, but Alma resents her and doubts her character. When she discovers that Prudence on the inside is just as beautiful, it threatens Alma’s confidence in her understanding of how the natural world operates. And Ambrose, also so pleasing to the eye – Alma suspects the worst of him. Here, too, she is perplexed at the truth. She has no experience with anything but struggle and competition as the mechanism for life, and thus has no understanding or acceptance of attributes like altruism or friendship. Yet, to the end, she claims fealty to her belief that the material, discoverable world is all that is necessary, and indeed, all she has wanted or needed of the world. She observes:
“I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others – why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion… but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world.”
Sadly, she never really did. Alma herself feels her life has been fortunate, especially because of all she has learned about “the world,” but after following her journey closely for the whole of her life, it is unlikely readers will feel the same as she. She has never understood the world’s people, and her life was consistently and tragically diminished for it.
Evaluation: Perhaps a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of rigorous epistemology, this lyrical musing about the meaning of life is a richly rewarding and thought-provoking book. It would make an especially fecund selection for a book club.
Published by Viking, a member of the Penguin Group, 2013
Wellcome Book Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2014)
Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2014)