The Novel Cure: Literary prescriptions for being the unsung hero


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Ailment: Being the unsung hero

Cure: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

For every lauded icon there is at least one unsung hero – the one who made everything possible. It can be galling to find yourself in this role. To be the one who put in all the graft, perhaps even hatched the idea, and then be forced to watch as your boss/partner/best friend soaks up all the accolades, might eat away at your soul. If this sounds horribly familiar, meet Alma Whittaker in this historical novel by the author of Eat Pray Love. She will give you a new way of looking at life in the shadows.

Our fictional heroine Alma is the daughter of a herbalist who made his fortune in medicinal plants. She has inherited his sharp mind and horticultural curiosity, as well, unfortunately, as his looks; for Alma is "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and six foot tall to boot. Alma has desperate sexual longings, but never has the opportunity to fulfil them, even when she marries – for her husband has issues of his own. Instead, she pours her passion into the study of mosses.

These humble plants consume her life, taking her to Tahiti where she finds thrilling specimens– and the beautiful man who features in her husband's erotic drawings. On her way back to Europe, Alma feverishly writes a treatise that effectively proves natural selection – and this four years before Charles Darwin, in both the novel and real life, was to publish The Origin of Species. She knows she has made a discovery that will change the very fabric of society – but she won't publish, because there's a piece of the jigsaw that doesn't fit: the existence of altruism. Meanwhile Darwin pips her to the post.

Alma knows that it is she, not Darwin, who should be remembered for generations to come. But who needs to be a showy orchid when you can be quietly miraculous? And after reading this novel, you too will come to see that remaining unsung can be both fulfilling – and liberating.