After several months of slow reading, I finally finished this book...several weeks ago. And I also wrote about it several weeks ago. (I'm kind of the worst. I have all these reviews waiting in the wings that I have failed to share with you yet.) So finally, I'm sharing my thoughts.
A spoiler-free summary...written by me:
Alma Whittaker, born right at the beginning of the 19th century, is the daughter of Henry Whittaker, a stubborn self-made man who finally settled down in Pennsylvania after years of botanical exploring around the world. Alma grows up in the finest house for miles around, honing her genius under her parents' tutelage and applying her brilliance to a study of naturalism.
That makes it sound incredibly boring, but I'm not sure how much further I can go without revealing too much. (Personally, if it's not revealed within the first 50 pages of the book, I consider it a spoiler. So I even left out some of the stuff that was on the jacket. But I promise there is much more to the book than what I've written.)
What I found spectacular about this book is that it follows the entire life of a single person, from birth to death (actually, it starts even before Alma's birth, detailing her father's life before Alma was born). Alma is so heartbreakingly human. I became so invested in her that I became incapable of judging her--I didn't exactly like or dislike her, I just loved her almost as though she were me. She's not anything like me--actually, I think she's pretty opposite me in most ways--but most of the time I kept thinking, she's just like me. When she made incredible mistakes, I couldn't condemn her or even pity her; I just felt her pain. When she searched for answers, I ached for them almost as much, I think, as she did. I think that's exactly what every novel writer should strive (and probably does strive) to do.
This book was both tragic and jubilant--exactly like a real human life. Alma has her share of sorrows, and they almost seemed unbearable to read about at times, but she also has her own kind of joy. It culminated in a perfect ending; not a fairytale ending, but the most perfect one it could be, in my opinion.
The only thing I didn't like about the book was the sexual content. I think it was kind of necessary, though; I don't know how you can honestly tell a person's entire life story without talking about sex in some way or another. But I guess I have a "delicate sensibility" toward it in books; I don't really like to read about other people's sex lives, even fictional people. I wouldn't say the sex in the book is graphic or erotic, but it's very frank and definitely sensual. It made me uncomfortable, but maybe other people wouldn't be bothered by it. It wasn't the main focus of the book, but it played a significant part (so you couldn't just skip certain pages).
Overall, though, I really loved this book.