One of my daughters has recommended this book to me. Having some knowledge of my literary tastes, she was sure that I would love it as much as she did. At first I had to agree that Elizabeth Gilbert was a very talented writer.
This is how the Prologue opens:
Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.
What a promising first sentence!
PART ONE is dedicated to Henry Whittaker’s development, explaining how he had become one of the richest men in the Western Hemisphere. His journey is captivating, filled with adventure and actual historical figures. The depiction of Captain Cook seems quite accurate and very much in line with my fascination and eventually hatred of the Christian explorers who had subjugated and enslaved so many non-Christian populations, converting the amenable and killing the stubborn.
The next four parts follow Alma Whittaker for the following 83 years of her life. Her parents, their trusted servant Hanneke de Groot and others of her family play various roles, but Alma is the star of this story and it is through her eyes and brain that we see it unfold. The prose is fresh, vigorous and sparkling – made me think that I have found an amazing masterpiece that could take its place among my other immortal favorite books. Stuff like: The Jitterbug Perfume by Tom Robbins, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin, Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein, The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer by Carol Hill, Gospel by Wilton Barnhardt, Flicker by Thomas Roszak and a few others (to do them justice, I will come up with my all-time favorite books list).
This is how Chapter Five starts:
She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. This was a rather unfortunate circumstance for Alma, although it would take her some years to realize it. Henry’s face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl. Not that Henry himself objected to this state of affairs; Henry Whittaker enjoyed looking at his image wherever he might encounter it (in a mirror, in a portrait, in a child’s face), so he always took satisfaction in Alma’s appearance.
“No question who spawned that one!” he would boast.
What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother had not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful. She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance. She demanded to know why a pony was not a baby horse. She demanded to know why sparks were born when she drew her hand across her sheets on a hot summer’s night. She not only demanded to know whether mushrooms were plants or animals, but also—when given the answer—demanded to know why this was certain.
I was totally smitten. This was the inception of a larger than life character that will surmount the mundanity of everyday life. She will go on to experience things that the rest of us could only dream of and leave a legacy worthy of a demi-Goddess. And indeed she grows up to be strong, intelligent and relentless. A diversion shows up in Chapter Six in the person of Polly/Prudence who becomes Alma’s adopted sister. Though Prudence is featured a lot less than Alma in the rest of the novel, it could be argued that she would have been a more fitting protagonist. Not quite yet, but certainly after closing the book.
Here is something that Alma did in the middle of Chapter Seven:
She lifted her skirts. Sitting there on the small stool in the tiny, dark, locked binding closet, with its smells of glue and leather, she opened her legs and began petting herself, poking at herself, moving her fingers in and around herself, frantically exploring her spongy petals, trying to find the devil who hid in there, eager to erase that devil with her hand.
She found it. She rubbed at it, harder and harder. She felt an unraveling. The hurt in her quim turned to something else—an up-fire, a vortex of pleasure, a chimney-effect of heat. She followed the pleasure where it led. She had no weight, no name, no thoughts, no history. Then came a burst of phosphorescence, as though a firework had discharged behind her eyes, and it was over. She felt quiet and warm. For the first conscious moment of her life, her mind was free from wonder, free from worry, free from work or puzzlement.
If I was not convinced before, I was now certain that I was totally and madly in love. Sadly, Alma had to go through 42 years of dreaming and pining for a sex partner and playing with herself, before there was even an inkling of some kind of relief. In a very short while, that turned out to be a false alarm. A few years later Alma felates a young and larger than life Tahitian, with no further sexual involvement. I kept my hope alive for her by remembering this Chapter Seven paragraph:
“I wished to discover,” the author wrote, “at what age a woman loses her ability to receive sensual pleasure. My friend the brothel owner, who had assisted me in the past in so many experiments, told me of a certain courtesan who had enjoyed her occupation actively from the age of fourteen until the age of sixty-four, and who now, at the age of seventy, lived in a city not far from my own. I wrote to the woman in question, and she responded with a letter of charming candor and warmth. In the space of a month, I had come to visit her, where she allowed me to examine her genitalia, which were not easily distinguished from the genitalia of a much younger woman. She demonstrated that she was still most capable of pleasure, indeed. Using her fingers and a light coating of nut oil upon her hood of passion, she stroked herself toward a crisis of rapture—”
It made me feel that Alma still had at least one possible sexual encounter in her future – I was looking forward to it. Sadly, that was not to be. It made me cry and wish beyond hope that I could somehow enter the story and help fill that life-long void. But the story went on to her 88th year abandoning her, weak and deteriorating, hugging a rare and legendary tree in her Dutch family’s garden.
Definitely, not making the list of my favorite books – actually, not even earning my endorsement. I will however address the title of the book. It seems to have something to do with one of Jacob Boehme’s theories. Apparently, God has left some kind of signature on his creations that is supposed to tell us what they are meant for – e.g. walnuts look a lot like brains, so they are an amazing brain food. At least I think that’s one thing he was saying. I gave up on following the twisted sell-serving logic. What irks me is that if Elizabeth Gilbert was somehow trying to make a point related to that kind of idea, it is a very disturbing one. As far as I (as well as Georgia O’Keefe and others) can tell, a woman’s quim looks amazingly like some kind of orchid. Now orchids are possibly the most sensual of all flowers. What should follow from that is that according to God’s design, they need to be pollinated as often as possible. Try telling that to any kind of Christian.
I may have missed the point and I wish someone could explain it to me. What is the rationale behind creating a character as strong, intelligent, hard-working but most of all as sensual as Alma Whittaker and bestowing upon her the curse of everlasting virginity? To add insult to injury, Alma appears to believe that this world is a marvelously, wondrous place and we do not need any others. To me it seems that a God who design this kind of world is cruel, sadistic and not worthy of any worship.
One last word: If a character as legendary as Alma Whittaker cannot get laid, what are the chances that any of us mere mortals could?
Ernie S. Llime