I'm not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love (never finished it), so I wasn't planning on reading this book. But then I began seeing other people say they didn't like EPL either, but loved this. Finally, the Tournament of Books added it to the list, and I thought, why not give it a try?
Why not indeed. Well, first of all, Gilbert blithely ignores one of the most fundamental rules of fiction writing: Show, don't tell. It can be argued that rules were meant to be broken. But if you're going to break the rules, you'd better have a good reason and do something interesting. Gilbert, alas, does not. Instead there are huge chunks of this book that are pretty much just summary of what's going on, broken by sessions of dialogue clearly meant to disclose things more efficiently than she could do by summarizing.
It creates an odd effect. At one point, the reader is told: "Panicked, she did the oddest thing." That sounds like a sentence a narrator would say about a character. But there is no narrator.
It's a shame, because the book got off to a rollicking start with the story of Henry Whittaker, a British ragamuffin who eventually becomes the richest man in Philadelphia. The story of how he does that is riveting. But that's only the set up for the main story, which is about Henry's daughter, Alma, who becomes a serious botanist studying mosses during the 1800s, a time not necessarily hospitable to women in science.
That sounds interesting, right? It is, to a point. The moss studies act as a central metaphor for Alma's life, a point driven home again and again--and again. Alma is an only child, but gains a sister through adoption. There's a love interest (Ambrose), and a friend (Retta), but along with the adopted sister (Prudence), these secondary characters never feel fleshed out or real. They exist simply to aid the narration.
As I said, it's a shame, because there's rich material here that goes unmined, or at least buried beneath the burdensome telling. Gilbert can write. I love this description of Henry's writing: "His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page."
But overall, it's bloated and too distant and strained in parts to really engage the reader, especially this reader.
But hey--it qualifies for the Chunkster Challenge!