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“Thank heavens we have an earth, or where would we sit?”

Elizabeth Gilbert borrows the title of her novel from the 16th Century German Christian mystic Jacob Boehme’s book “De Signatura Rerum”. The Doctrine of Signatures premised that plants imbued by God with characteristics of the human bodily have medicinal uses. Botany has a significant place in this geographically and temporarily epic novel. Thematically, Alma Whittaker, the novel’s spinster bryologist character, debates Darwin’s transmutation and Alfred Russell Wallace’s spiritual evolution. It is the failure of natural selection to explain morality within humans that causes Alma Whittaker not to publish her evolutionary study of mosses during the same period that Darwin publishes “On The Origins of the Species”. Darwin, who knew of Wallace’s prior evolutionary work, avoided the question of morality within his purported “survival of the fittest” (or adaptable) theory by describing animals other than humans. Heresy, although a consideration in the Lutheran Dutch world from which Ms. Whittaker came and ultimately returns, was a factor, but not a concern to Ms. Whittaker in her decision. Her English father was an enlightened materialist that cornered the market in herbal pharmaceuticals from 18th and 19th Century America. Religion had no place in his life, nor in his Dutch Lutheran wife’s, who was grounded in the world. This mentality was genetically transcribed to the precocious Ms. Whittaker, who having her mother’s unattractive physical features and her father’s drive, found recluse in the study of moss. Her adopted sister Prudence, the daughter of a prostitute, is juxtaposed as coldly beautiful, but not lacking intellect nor morality. The novel’s romantic interest is a matter of love’s labor lost, with neither obtaining the desired same suitor. Ms. Whittaker, in contrast to her father’s materialism and her scientific objectivity, marries a naturalist who spiritualism causes him to be banished to Tahiti.

To Ms. Gilbert’s extensive research of botany, is added the animism of Tahitian culture, and small dose of their language. The story is fast reading and the theme is underplayed. The prose is plain. Ms. Gilbert is more storyteller than a composer of great sentences or characters. Initially, I found the characters to be caricatures, but Ms. Gilbert has them evolve. The story is also somewhat contrived, but is still entertaining. The strength of the book is Ms. Gilbert’s research and its theme. Unlike many books that close weakly, I felt that the novel got stronger toward the end, despite its tilt toward feminism. Ms. Gilbert saves the novel from being sappy, by not having Darwin’s publication preceded by Ms. Whittaker’s own unpublished work on evolution.

Ms. Gilbert in her acknowledgment recognizes Dr. Robin Wall-Kimmerer, a U.S. bryologist, and all women in science. The scientific choice to explore what is unexplored on earth by observing the seemingly commonplace or perceived useless aspects of our biological and physical world underlies this novel. Darwin studied coral, Ms. Whittaker studied moss. It is important to know where you are sitting.

This novel has been well received by critics and is popular. For the research and the novel’s theme, it is worth reading in my opinion.