book review

on being tender

Most days, these days, I count to 5 before I read the news. While I’m counting, I ask myself if my time would be better spent reaching out to someone or engaging in joyful pursuit. Or both. Not that I’ve put my head in the sand. Far from it. But I’m interested these days in boundaries that also allow for light. There’s a long, troubling haul ahead culturally, and sustenance for the fight, for me, is going to come from remembering both my impermanence and the importance of celebrating tiny, fierce, joyful things.

I’ve been thinking all week, since my book group meeting, about Brian Doyle.

I first met writer Brian Doyle through the pages of Orion magazine, where his pieces made me giggle and want to read them aloud or memorize them or lean into my husband and whisper them. Delicious series of words that tongue-twist and whirl and leap. “21 Laws of Nature as Interpreted by My Children” reminds we humans not to get too big for our britches: “If you can’t make a new ant, don’t kill an old one,” reads #20. “The Greatest Nature Essay Ever” pokes fun at the preachy earnestness of environmental writing, which so often bludgeons readers with stridency and dire prognostication.

Here’s his last paragraph from that essay:

“And finally the last paragraph. It turns out that the perfect nature essay is quite short, it’s a lean taut thing, an arrow and not a cannon, and here at the end there’s a flash of humor, and a hint or tone or subtext of sadness, a touch of rue, you can’t quite put your finger on it but it’s there, a dark thread in the fabric, and there’s also a shot of espresso hope, hope against all odds and sense, but rivetingly there’s no call to arms, no clarion brassy trumpet blast, no website to which you are directed, no hint that you, yes you, should be ashamed of how much water you use or the car you drive or the fact that you just turned the thermostat up to seventy, or that you actually have not voted in the past two elections despite what you told the kids and the goat.”

Doyle’s writing’s often silly, unwieldy as Faulkner, and this side-door play with language works like a water mark you can see when you hold the artifact up to the light, or a flavor you can taste hours later. That kind of fun with words piques curiosity, keeps you reading.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a copy of his novel Mink River, a book I read faster than I wanted to and stayed up late to do it a few nights running, aware that such fast tour through the pages was a disrespect to the writer’s deft ability to make prose read like poetry. Mostly, when I consider Doyle’s work, I think of the word wonder. I don’t know how he does it, but he manages to infuse his characters and their perspectives with an awe about living most of us seem to miss, busy as we are with the big problems, the minutiae, the plans and goals and hiccups.

Time with Doyle always makes me realize that in this short stint of living, I’d be better served to use wonder as my lens. There’s a choice about perspective, after all, and sometimes choice takes both purpose and a bit of work.

I recommended Martin Marten as my book group’s February read. The same friend who sent me Mink River gifted me Martin Marten in early summer as my son was about to leave home for college. It was the perfect gift, and I read it in the hammock in the week before we delivered Owen to his new chapter. Doyle’s story was a reminder that sending a kid out into the world is a new chapter for parents, too; when anyone you love peels off on his own path, he’s both inextricably bound to the place from where he’s come and forever separate in a new way. Both joy and sadness can set up shop next to each other in one’s heart, and that’s the vital rub of living.

Martin Marten, about a boy called Dave, his family, and the colorful collection of characters in their small Mt. Hood town of Zig Zag, Oregon (a town below where I’ve spent some time skulking about in the woods, a magical place), is another testament to Doyle’s wondrous outlook, to his fine ear and artful craft, to his bedrock sense that the world is a brief, glorious journey, and that the people along for the ride with us are full of wonder, too, even if they are also simultaneously curmudgeonly, or afraid, or confused. The novel unspools the twin coming-of-age of Dave, the boy, and Martin, the pine marten, and their stories weave and flirt together and apart as they’re both tossed and turned in life and love.

Dave’s younger sister is as precocious as any child you’ll meet in fiction. But I didn’t mind her ability to so candidly talk about feelings or her spatially gifted genius. Her words to her brother – the same words that ring long after the story is over – are to “be tender.”

Could there be any better words to adopt as your theme song? Especially now, when most days it feels like tenderness is a fleeting impulse, with so much hateful rage and fear on the wind.

A few years ago Brian and I both had stories published in the same journal, and I ginned up the courage to email him and tell him what a fan I was. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he emailed me back within a few hours with genuine enthusiasm and his signature silly swirl of language. Neither too important nor too busy to respond, despite his much more impressive publications. His swift, embracing tone of collegiality is something I’ll remember always and work to pay forward, too.

Our book group meetings always involve a writer review, and a friend came this week prepared to share Doyle’s accomplishments in fiction and essays, his background and family story, and his working life as editor of Portland Magazine. This story isn’t all about joy: I didn’t know until this week that Doyle was diagnosed with a brain tumor in November. He had surgery a few weeks ago and is recovering in the hospital after a complicated procedure that’s made post-surgery complicated, too, not to mention survival.

In Martin Marten, Dave spends a good bit of time exploring the “Daveness” of being Dave. In a note to his readers in the days before surgery, The “Doyleness” of Doyle sounds an awful lot like the character he built for us, so full of light:

“stories are holy and nutritious and crucial. Stories change lives; stories save lives. … They crack open hearts, they open minds…It’s more important than ever before to hold hands and catch and share stories of substance and grace and defiant courage and irrepressible humor…The alternative is to ‘allow nothing in our lives but sales pitches and lies.’”

“We could change the world if we told the right story,” Doyle said. 

Indeed.

I hope, Brian, that you can feel me hugging you from here with defiant tenderness. That you can hear my stories rising up with the stories of so many others.

Doyle Family Support Fund.

 

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Categories: book review, books, community, family, fiction, nature, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , | 4 Comments

stories in the world

Much gratitude to JuxtaProse for including “Shelter in Place” in a recent issue. They were amazing to work with, and I’m thrilled to be invited to the party of authors they assembled. You can read that piece here.

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If you’re not sick of me after that, you can check the most recent book review of Paolo Bacigalupi‘s The Water Knife here.

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Thanks, always, for checking in to this space. I aim to end the year writing, the same as I began it, and to make a dent in the pile of books I can’t wait to get lost in. Here’s to stories of all kinds and the way they shore us up in hard times, plant the seeds of change, and inspire us to be better humans.

 

 

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theft

From time to time I’ll be reviewing books at the Kudzu Vine, the blog associated with Kudzu House Quarterly, where I’m also a reader. This month I had the pleasure of reading and writing about BK Loren’s debut novel Theft.

bkloren.com

bkloren.com

Loren’s a skillful craftsman, a thoughtful environmentalist, a damn good storyteller. She’s also published Animal, Mineral, Radical: A Flock of Essays on Wildlife, Family, and Food, and she’s a frequent contributor in the pages of Orion Magazine. You can read her “Dreaming in Dirt” in those pages here.

I’m delighted to occupy the planet with a writer paying attention to the tussle between people and place in all the right ways. The publishing editor of her first book told Loren she wrote like she was “raised by wolves.” Which seems about right.

 

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all the birds

wyld

 

This week I stayed up too late one night to finish Evie Wyld’s novel All the Birds, Singing. After I turned out the lights, I lay awake deciphering how Wyld had stitched the thing together and how she’d managed to make every page of it wrought with terror and mystery.

Then I had a bunch of nightmares.

I don’t usually read thrillers. I’m not a great sleeper anyway – I’d hate to think what a steady diet of horror would do to my psyche. But I’m so glad I read Wyld’s novel, a delicious puzzle of a story.

About Jake Whyte, a woman who raises sheep on an island off the coast of England, Wyld’s novel toggles time: Moving forward through the present is the mystery of what’s killing Jake’s sheep – something vicious, stealthy, beastly – and the mystery of what’s chasing her from the past. Moving backward is the story of Jake’s past in Australia, also a mystery that increases in brutality as the novel careens on.

The twin haunting of Jake’s past and the current lives is flecked with leering, largely malicious characters. So much so that a reader is naturally suspicious of the mysterious stranger Lloyd, who shows up one stormy night at the ranch. Jake decides to trust him, but as we’ve seen, her life is a stew of unfortunate events and her own tragic choices. We don’t entirely trust her perspective.

Psychological and physical torment through the seen and the unseen stalk the novel’s pages. There’s the trope of gruesome scars on Jake’s back. Though we never get a really detailed bead on what, exactly, they look like, we understand them to be horrific and to appear as if she’s been ravaged by some clawed beast. More, every scene in which the scars present themselves means further menace for Jake. We come to understand the necessity of her muscular arms and legs, honed through a regimen of push-ups and sit-ups – sometimes the only aspect of her world she can control.

Plugging for Jake to occupy any kind of grace is what a reader brings to every threatening scene.

Structurally complicated and unflinching, the novel marches toward the mystery of Jake’s bleak past and what feels like her bleaker future. Along the way it’s peppered with the kindnesses of people with whom Jake attempts to heal. Greg, the boyfriend she leaves behind in Australia. Lloyd, who seems, always, to be in the right place at the right time. Don, from whom she bought the island ranch, who’s got his own set of demons to wrangle.

To all this Wyld adds the relentless rain, the wind, the isolation, and the uncertainty of what or whom is tracking her – man or supernatural force. Wyld shoves a reader along toward the inevitable intersection of past and present.

A point, this reader was certain, must be cataclysmic.  And it is.

I will say that after the heart-drumming-up-at-night-reading-nightmare-having-hope-for-grace journey with Jake, I was surprised (and disappointed) at the ending. I spent quite a bit of time thumbing back through the pages, trying to trace the road map to the place where Wyld leaves us. It’s a purposefully mysterious place, that much is clear. After spending so much time in the good hands of a really accomplished storyteller, I had to reconcile the ending as artfully open and remember that sometimes landing the plane of a story is the most difficult part.

In an interview with Courtney Collins, Wyld talks about resisting neat closures. I don’t disagree with her; endings that solve every conflict make the journey to get there much less interesting. Equally dissatisfying, though, is a kind of vague falling away – two characters staring off into the distance might be real life, but it doesn’t much work for fiction, especially fiction that for two hundred excruciating pages is a punch in the gut.

I don’t think Wyld’s ending works, but I take her point: tidy endings stink; the world is full of mystery we can hardly imagine; our own hearts are sometimes cloaked in darkness. Ultimately, I recognize in the final scene a reconciliation for Jake, and for that, I’ll be able to sleep easier at night.

She won some impressive awards for All the Birds, Singing, her second novel: the Miles Franklin Award, the Encore Award, and the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered prize. She was short and long listed for a heap of others, and among The New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2014.

I can’t wait to see what dark tales Evie Wyld’s got waiting in the wings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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light

Early this summer I packed up my bookshelves, preparing to move again, though only a few miles away this time.  Each move, I designate a special box of books I unpack first where I’m going.  My old friends.  Rick Bass and Kent Haruf, Barbara Kingsolver and Jane Austen, Zola and Hurston, Steinbeck, Ron Carlson, Elizabeth Gilbert, Annie Proulx.

This move, before I closed the box lid and taped it shut, I added one more friend:  Anthony Doerr’s newest novel, All The Light We Cannot See.

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It’s important to note before I say anything else that I’ve been a Doerr fan for years.  His short stories are the sort, like Faulkner’s, that stun and sting, surprising and sharp.  Visceral.  You cannot shake the watermark of them.  This latest Doerr work is a complicated arc of character and time, swooping between years before and during WWII and among characters on both sides of that conflict.

At the heart of the novel is the pulse of radio, a tool that comes to mean emotional and intellectual desire, and how and whether one pursues and uses it.  Radio in Doerr’s pages means yearning for innocence and family.  Radio is a tool used for savage murder.  Each sentence crafted, a surprise, the language exquisite and rich, Doerr’s prose reads like poetry.

The story is complicated, full of characters working to survive.  Marie-Laure’s father, the principal locksmith at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, teaches her how to survive blindness.  She learns to navigate in their flat with the aid of twine and bells.  She learns to navigate the streets by first memorizing a scale model her father builds out of wood.  She learns Braille, and thereby learns to navigate the world of fiction and the human thrum of yearning, adventuring with Nemo Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.  Despite these skills, and though she is raised up intellectually by her father and Dr. G. at the museum, Marie-Laure is sheltered and must ultimately navigate a war-ravaged terrain alone.

Werner, an orphan in a coal mining town, has early survival built into his existence. A proclivity for math and electronics leads him to be chosen to attend an elite Nazi school just before the war begins, a boon and a curse, although he does not yet know it.  He will not have to work in the mines like all men before him, like his father who died far below the ground; he will do something much worse.  Early on, we see that Frau Elena and Werner’s sister Jutta guide his heart, act as his moral compass, present in Jutta’s refrain, later echoed by Werner’s friend Frederick:  Is it right to do something because everyone else is doing it? 

The way we use and harness light and energy, and the miracle of what we can do for and against each other, is present on every page of the novel.  Blind Marie-Laure cannot see light, and yet she can:  people, events, and sound have color for her—the world is sensorially rich, fully tactile, layered with meanings.  From within her emanates an energy vibrant enough that Werner, when he sees her on the street, cannot help but mark her gait and her aura, and also remember it.  And Werner, too, possesses a special vitality– his shock of white hair, tiny stature and early ability to solve complicated triangulated problems are an engine within him.

Marie-Laure and Werner are not the only ones compelled by fierce energy.  There’s an insistence of self-preservation in every character Doerr unspools, the desires of each glinting like so many facets of the Sea of Flames diamond Marie-Laure’s father tries to protect and the Nazi Von Rumpel risks everything to obtain.  Von Rumpel is Nero here, racing against the clock of war and the sentence of his own terminal illness, and yet his maniacal pursuit is one a reader recognizes.  For who hasn’t been terrified of death and wished to live forever?  To find the Holy Grail? To shout over the rooftops of the world, even if it is crumbling?

By the time these three lives collide in Saint-Malo, for of course they must, the race to save what each cherishes most puts a reader at the top of the narrative scaffolding Doerr has so intricately assembled.  It’s a delicious tableau:  A gem seeker who’s abandoned all sense of humanity, a girl with nothing left but her hope that humanity still exists, a boy who understands, finally, that he’s forsaken his heart for his mind.

I couldn’t help but think about the artist behind the crafting of such work.  My own stories are often dark, full of doomed folk, the creative effort behind them infected with a baseline Eeyoreness I work hard to inject with any kind of hope.  Yet hope is an undercurrent I look for in the work of others, because who wants to read a story about all the useless desires that elude us?

Anthony Doerr understands how to tell a story we want to read.  More than that, I think his secret might be a fundamental hopefulness in human nature.  How else could he have tackled the dark torment of the Holocaust and nonetheless, what rises to the surface is a world emanating with the light of kindnesses, of bravery, of love?

Doerr talks about the inspiration for his story here in a Powell’s interview.

And also here:

 

 

 

 

 

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resurrection

As she often does, in her latest story “The Resurrections” published at Terrain, Heather E. Goodman writes about complicated relationships that are real, gritty, honest.  Her characters muck around in each other’s hearts and on the land, aiming for grace, yearning to be understood, seeking forgiveness and sometimes getting it.  There’s palpable tenderness rising up out of this hardscrabble life etched by a series of deaths.

The narrator grieves the death of his wife Elna, of his father, of the business he and his father built together, of his youth and the loss of a young man’s full life.  “The Resurrections” isn’t a long story, but it’s stitching is both intricate and simple, giving the impression that Goodman knows exactly what it’s like to be a grieving widower, an older man on a threshold between a past he can’t do anything about and the awakening knowledge that he’s got enough life left in him to hope for the future.

Goodman’s prose is spare, always, and prismed here with the flinty winter landscape and a friendship that resolves to thaw itself nonetheless.  Even the animals have agency and longing, evident in the hound dog Beagle who can’t seem to help digging up his dead friend Smokey, a cat.

Delicious fiction.  Read it.  It’s the sort of story you’ll carry with you.

 

 

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McDermott, Chainsaw Artist

I recently read a craft article by Ben Percy on creating and managing conflict in stories.  Trying to figure out the allure in Stieg Larsson’s uber-popular The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Percy decided to color code the conflicts in the novel’s hefty pages, working to understand the way Larsson had complicated, layered and ratcheted up the various perils facing Lisbeth and Mikael.  According to Percy, the best stories create characters who juggle several problems at one time – these are the “flaming chainsaws” of good fiction, simultaneous crises that increase in threat and rotation.  Necessary tools, because believable, palpable peril is the engine under the hoods of novels.

I’ve been thinking about it a lot since I read it, aligning his notion alongside of my own stories, which frequently fail in early drafts to be on fire in effective measure.

This week I considered chainsaws in Alice McDermott’s quiet book Someone, the story of Marie Commeford.  In 2012, I read one of the book’s chapters excerpted in The New Yorker, though at the time I didn’t realize it was part of something longer because it works so beautifully as a short story.  Two sentences into this section of the novel, my first experience reading came back to me viscerally in full bloom:  Marie’s first sexual experience with the usurious Walter Hartnett, a boy with a gimpy leg; Marie’s abandonment when Walter found a better offer, a girl with money and a name.  McDermott’s stories, searing and quiet, structurally complex, worth puzzling over, are the sort that stay with you.

In the novel, throughout her life, Marie invokes Walter’s name several times, an iteration that McDermott deftly employs to illustrate the power and lasting watermark of sexual memory.  A girl plagued with poor eyesight, Marie tells her own story, looks back over a life beginning in a 1930s Brooklyn neighborhood. Her lack of sight, the various surgeries she has to correct it, the scenes a reader is privy to through Marie’s hazy vision or which we experience from beneath gauze, become an important trope in the book, which is largely about the way we see the world slant, caught up as we are in dreams and our varied versions of reality.

When it was released in 2013, many critical reviews examined how nothing much happened in Someone’s pages.  Even the book flap reads:  “…this resonant story of an unremarkable woman’s unforgettable life.” Not the best words to recommend a reader sit down right now and give it a go.

McDermott herself, when interviewed by The New Yorker about the novel, said, “novels about unremarkable women, especially those written by unremarkable women, seem a thing of the past. But that’s what the novel wanted to be. . . . It’s the contrarian in me, I’m afraid.”

There’s the undeniable beauty of McDermott’s writing, spare and unassuming, a fitting match for the characters, who soldier on without the kind of histrionics present in louder stories.  And McDermott’s fictive world is certainly universal– the novel depicts a world we might recognize in our own neighborhoods, sensorially rich but compressed, too, in the way stories about others often come to us.  Constant in every page is the aching gap between the intimate knowledge about ourselves we accept or refuse or dress up as something else, and the way we never really know the heart of another.

And yet I found McDermott’s unremarkable story surprisingly compelling, and though it’s not the stuff of Stieg Larsson’s edgy-sexual-action-adventure-murder-mystery-thriller, it IS full of the sorts of chainsaws one recognizes.

girl with fire

Inspired by Percy, I started making a list of McDermott’s chainsaws, struggles essential to the becoming of Marie.  There are Marie’s internal issues– the effect of her father’s sickness and early death; her trouble with her sight and later, the fear of blindness and the surgeries to avert it; her sexual awakening with Walter Hartnett; her desire to understand and to help her brother Gabe, which is largely a useless desire, until the end.

Orbiting all around Marie is another set of struggles, all within spitting distance of her Brooklyn stoop.  There are the neighborhood deaths that dot the landscape of these pages — her neighbor, Peegen Chehab, who dies falling down a flight of stairs, and whose name, like Walter Hartnett’s, is invoked again and again throughout the novel; young Mrs. Hanson, her best friend Gerty’s mother, who dies in childbirth, echoed later in Marie’s own medical scare with her first child; blind Bill Corrigan, the arbiter of street baseball, who commits suicide.  And later, once young Marie broadens her world view, there is the parade of death she must help assuage the pain of at Fagin’s funeral home where she works.  There’s spiritual crisis, abandonment, widowhood, urban blight, complications of Marie’s own child birth, the question of whether and how one can save others from themselves.

The list is much longer than this, but I’m surprised at the way this quiet story is so fraught with struggle.  McDermott’s Marie is not being chased by madmen or facing the end times, but her chainsaws have heft and urgency enough to give Marie the kind of agency readers seek.

And while I never fully understood why McDermott didn’t choose to let fully rise to the surface what’s really wrong with Gabe, I did find it interesting how she uses the unknown surrounding her brother to pull us along through the narrative.  The issue of Gabe rises above another rotating danger – bearing and raising children, which, as Marie shows us time and again can be treacherous and heartbreaking.  It is all around Marie in those she knows.  It is also her own treachery–bearing a second child after almost losing her life to the first is a defiance she justifies out of desire, courage, stubbornness.  But this danger is muted by our early understanding that Marie is looking back, that she’s successfully had children.

Flaming chainsaws at work in a story reach a place where they are dangerously aflame.  The “constant, rotating threat of them,” as Percy says, must be extinguished.

Gabe’s breakdown and time in an institution, the way Tom and Marie bring him home like a child (though, even to the end, Gabe remains the zen-master about the world and the human heart), are a surprising inevitability.   Ultimately, Marie believes she “saves” Gabe from himself by pocketing his pills, saves him from “falling down” like poor Peegen Chehab.  I’m not sure it works, this choice, but I take McDermott’s point.

It’s not a movie, after all, it’s a life.  Full of all that cannot be seen or known, of falling and failing, and the celebration of triumphs, both real and imagined.

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.  maybe the best part of this hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students...

http://jockmackenzie.wordpress.com.
Maybe the best part of this understandably hard-to-find image is the fact that this guy is a teacher and juggled flaming chainsaws for his students…

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it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

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