This is a beautiful, sprawling, luscious novel telling the epic life story of Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 to the wealthiest man in Philadelphia, a botanist and pharmaceutical magnate. She grows up cloistered in the family estate, and becomes a botanist herself, fascinated by… mosses. It certainly doesn’t sound like the recipe for a page-turner, but we tore through 500 pages in no time, totally engrossed by the historical minutiae that Gilbert effortlessly weaves into the story.
We won’t give a blow by blow account of the plot, but at its most stripped back, it is simply the story of ambitious, plain Alma, in all its intellectual and romantic glory. The backdrop is Philadelphia, London, Peru, Amsterdam, Tahiti and more; this is a richly detailed historical tale of adventure, desire and love.
We’ll be honest: The book is really only (very) obliquely related to Southeast Asia, thanks to a belated, wonderful cameo by Alfred Russel Wallace, one of our favourite Southeast Asian historical figures, in Amsterdam. Alma’s scientific work eventually took her deep into the field of evolution, so she comes to read Wallace’s work about natural selection and invites him to visit her in her senior years. (Wallace theorised about the different flora and fauna between the ecozones of Asia and Wallacea, a transitional zone between Asia and Australia; he gave his name to the Wallace Line that divides the two.)
Wallace wrote The Malay Archipelago (another must-read), and lived in Indonesia's Sulawesi (Celebes) for years as he developed his theory of evolution at the same time as Charles Darwin. Some argue Darwin poached his ideas, though this doesn’t really pan out, and indeed Wallace was a pall-bearer at his funeral. Alma calls Wallace “a prince of science!” and at the end of her life, summons him to Amsterdam. We loved seeing him appear in fiction, and have him confirm that Alma, at least fictionally, was a third person to have developed a theory of evolution.
Read this, if you are a Wallace fan, even though he only appears at the end. Or read it if you have a thirst for history, strong women, for science, or for seeing the world when colonialism was taking root and starting to shape the political boundaries of the modern world.
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