The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (October 2013)

signatureElizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, deserves every bit of that fame.  Her writing is exquisite.  This novel of the 19th century will sweep you away with the esthetic of it’s period language.  And that esthetic is not in the least bit stodgy; it’s rather humorous.  For a large book that covers two generations and travels the world (London, Philadelphia, Tahiti, Peru), it was quick and engulfing reading.  The story centers on Alma, a woman who does not fit her century’s mold for females:  She is not only brilliant, but she lives the full life of the intellect, pursuing a life-long study of mosses and evolutionary theory.  MOSSES?  you say.  Yes, mosses, that lowly plant that perhaps you dislike if it invades the shady places of your pristine lawn, or perhaps you discount because it has never grabbed your attention.  I’m actually quite fond of the stuff, having grown up close to the PNW rainforests.  And I once tried to grow it in my sidewalk garden, only to watch the fragile plant whither to wiry brownness in the unrelenting New York sun.  But I guffawed at first at the notion of spending one’s life dedicated to understanding moss.  Nonetheless, I was entranced by Alma’s enthusiasm and complete absorption in the subject.  And heartbroken at the price she paid for being brainy, tall, and not terribly attractive.  The consequences of Alma’s choices, coupled with those things out of her control — those aspects of her time and culture that determined her fate — combine to form a deeply drawn character whose life was, in the end, very full in spite of gnawing absences.  Like the fragile mosses she studied, Alma struggled to thrive.  But when she found the right ecosystem, she flourished.  One of the best books of the year, I think.  Advance Readers Copy supplied through BEA.

Age of Desire by Jennie Fields (Aug 2012)

Many of us have become Downton Abbey groupies.  We are living deprived, lonely existences until the next season begins and we can rejoin the characters and time period to which we have grown attached.  In the meantime, we seek out substitutes to tide us over.  Age of Desire is one such worthy experience.  It takes place a wee bit earlier, around 1908.  And it involves an American ex-patriot — Edith Wharton — in Paris and London, rather than entrenched British nobility.  But the relationship between Wharton and her onetime governess and then friend and secretary, Anna, reminds me of the ways in which boundaries are both reinforced and occasionally transcended despite class divisions in Downton Abbey.  Those divisions, involving as they do Americans in Age of Desire, are significantly less pronounced than among the British.  Yet they clearly color everything.  Henry James and Morton Fullerton feature prominently in this novel.  But the main focus is on Wharton — her writing, her marriage, her affair, and her relationship with Anna that permeated it all.  A recommended read.  Advance readers copy provided by the publisher and Netgalley.

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