This was a very long book - 600 + pages which at times seemed to drag on endlessly, however whenever I was on the point of abandoning it, an interesting bit would crop up and that would keep me going. I must admit that I did do a lot of skimming as I found some of it pretty dreary and boring.
Apparently, as a small girl, Elizabeth Gilbert the author scrawled her name in an extraordinary book in her house: an original illustrated folio of Captain Cook’s voyages. Decades later, her parents discovered her signature and gave her the book, reigniting her passion for scientific exploration in the century leading up to Darwin’s theory of evolution. She became fascinated with the women—always wives or daughters of scientists—who made their own discoveries, in spite of the cultural constraints that kept them from true exploration.
So, the book starts off with the story of Henry Whittaker, who was born in 1760 into a very poor family. He was the youngest child of a lowly gardener at Kew Gardens. Despite being nigh on illiterate he became, a botanical explorer, import tycoon and the richest man in Philadelphia. He wasn’t a likeable person and achieved this through a mixture of his intelligence, his interest in trees and dishonesty.
His daughter Alma, born in 1800 is the main character in the book. She is a strong character, intelligent and inquisitive, rather plain and not dainty or feminine but raised in luxury which enabled her to devote herself to scholarly pursuits with time for reading and research. This led to her becoming an eminent botanist in her own right. Alma spends most of her life in seclusion on the family estate, unmarried and alone.
Different characters are introduced to the story and these lead to unexpected twists and turns, joys, heartbreak and soul searching and self discovery for all concerned, culminating in Alma travelling to Tahiti and then on to visit family in Holland.
The book is very informative, giving a background history and loads of facts about the inception and development of Kew Gardens and about its superintendent, Sir Joseph Banks who had been chief botanist for Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour. It gives an insight into 19th century travel and life in various parts of the world- London, Peru, Philadelphia, Holland, Tahiti and beyond. It is crammed with botanical facts and details and rather monotonous, descriptive passages which I tended to skim over - I can’t say I’m particularly enamoured by the taxonomy of mosses or the minutiae of countless botanical species. There were also some weird rather distasteful sexual scenes which I didn’t think were necessary, they certainly didn’t enhance the story or add anything to the plot. So I am ambivalent about the book. It certainly involved a huge amount of research by Elizabeth Gilbert, but in retrospect I wish I hadn’t bothered to read it, it didn’t have a feel good factor for me.