Set in 19th-century America, when the world was exploding with dangerous new ideas, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family. Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman, becomes the richest man in Philadelphia. His daughter, Alma, has inherited his brilliant mind and fabulous wealth but seems doomed to a life without love.
What it’s all about: Alma Whittaker lives in Philadelphia’s largest, most opulent mansion. Curious and intelligent, she seems to have it all. But as she gets older, it becomes clear to Alma that she is not at all pretty and lacks the ability to attract men. Confined to the family’s estate until her father’s death, she suppresses her romantic frustrations by burying herself in her work, the study of mosses — a subject she finds endlessly fascinating. Alma is content for the most part until one day, a plant illustrator named Ambrose comes calling, and it occurs to Alma that here’s a man who might fulfill her. But is Ambrose truly the man of her dreams? Or will she have to venture farther afield to find fulfillment?
Why we love it: Elizabeth Gilbert tells a tantalizing tale of lust and longing that spans decades, as she explores Alma’s adventures criss-crossing the globe after her father dies. She is on a quest to understand science, herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. The narrative is so fast-paced and the tale so well told that you want to stop and savour Gilbert’s beautifully crafted descriptions and exquisite historical detail.
The inspiration: Gilbert discovered a 1783 copy of Captain James Cook’s Voyages and was “captivated by the antique romance of it — the maps, ethnographic drawings, adventure, amazing botanical illustrations.” It led her to research 18th- and 19th-century botanical studies. “I was keen to put a woman into that world and see what became of her.” Alma’s explorations provide insights into the human heart and mind, and demonstrate the courage of one woman striving to find her place in the world. “I wanted to write a novel that would — in contrast to so many of the great 19th-century novels with female protagonists — celebrate a woman’s mind, a woman’s love of the world, a woman’s curiosity.”
Talking points: The collision between science and spirituality, love, family, resilience, contentment.
Behind the scenes: Gilbert is best known for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Interestingly, an article she wrote for GQ about bartending in Manhattan became the basis for the movie Coyote Ugly.
Early writing: “Probably the first major thing I wrote was a play, in fifth grade, called Mona’s Proof, about a girl who goes back in time and nobody believes her. I staged a performance of the play after lunch one day in the school gym. I also directed it and starred in it. It was a musical, even though it was only 10 minutes long. I have never been shy about promoting my work!”
What’s next: “A novel about women’s adventures, friendships and wildness.”