Eucalyptus

When I asked my friend, the Master Gardener, the name of the tree with the colorful bark, she called it a gum tree, sometimes known as eucalyptus – evidently, pretty common in Australia and, to me, fascinatingly beautiful.  Murray Bail’s novel, Eucalyptus,  includes so much information about this tree that you could use it as a reference book.  Or you could skip over all his Latin descriptions and just enjoy Bail’s modern fairy tale- if you can persevere through his forest of words.

Just as Sleeping Beauty could only be awakened by true love, just as Briar Rose’s prince had to have pure motivation to cut through the thorns – was that the same story? – Bail’s hero in Eucalyptus has to pass a test to get the fair Australian maiden, Ellen.

Ellen’s father, Holland, came into wealth by taking out insurance that his wife would have twins; after Ellen is born, her twin brother and her mother both die.  Holland cashes in the policy, eventually buying land in New South Wales and begins a life with his young daughter.  At first, Ellen becomes a partner in his quest to find every type of eucalypt and plant it on their property.  As she grows older, she tires of her father’s obsession; when she becomes interested in men, her father creates a plan to find her a husband.

He devises a test that he thinks no one can pass.  To win Ellen’s hand in marriage, the successful suitor will have to name each elusive name of the hundreds of varieties of eucalypt he has planted on their Australian land;  only such a  man will be worthy of his daughter.

Throughout the narrative, Bail provides instruction with botanical references, descriptions of leaf formation, color, plant size, etc. – but no pictures.  After reading about the Yellow Bloodwood, the Black Peppermint, and many more in the eucalyptus family, I found a website – Australian Native Plants – just to see what they looked like.

Many suitors try and fail, but eventually, Mr. Cave arrives and appears to know as much about the eucalyptus as Holland, which does not necessarily endear him to Ellen…

“Really, what sort of man could go and name all the trees? … The sheer number of names shifting about in English and Latin would occupy vital space in a person, space that could be used for other, more natural things…”

As Mr. Cave methodically progresses through his naming of trees, charming Holland and ignoring Ellen, another man mysteriously appears under a tree one day to captivate Ellen with his stories.  While Mr. Cave is wandering the acreage with Holland, Ellen is secretly meeting the mystery man every day to hear him tell her stories.  The mysterious man seems to know all the tree names and connects each  eucalyptus with a tragic love story laced with a little philosophy, romance, and morality.  He has a story for every tree, and  the trees cover the wide expanse of the land, so the stories seem neverending.  After a few pages of “a thousand and one nights” of rambling,  you’ll wonder where the original plot went.

Just as Mr. Cave is about to finish naming the trees and claim Ellen as his prize, Ellen is suddenly struck with a despairing illness; the mysterious man has disappeared.  For days, she languishes in bed;  only a story by the right person can save her.

Just in case you decide to wade through all the botany and the Scheherazade marathon, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.  Remember,  most fairy tales have a “live happily ever after” ending.

For some reason, Eucalyptus weaved its spell and entangled me in its prose, but not everyone will want to wallow in Bail’s poetic descriptions and philosophizing.  I admit, I did skip most of the eucalyptus lecturing – and went for true love.

The Cookbook Collector

Is it better to collect rare old cookbooks, or cook? Should you take a risk with new ideas or play it safe? Should you wait for true love or settle?

The title of Allegra Goodman’s latest book – The Cookbook Collector – is not what it seems – surprisingly, it’s only peripherally about cookbooks, and not the contemporary ones you might be checking for a new recipe.

George, handsome and independently wealthy from early successful capital ventures, owns a rare books bookshop – just for fun – a place to house his collection. He really doesn’t need an income, and really doesn’t want customers. Jess, a Berkeley graduate student in philosophy, is the perpetual student delaying growing up. She works for George part-time, rearranging, admiring, and mostly just reading his books. Although Jess is 15 years younger and has a tree-hugging boyfriend, her excitement for life in general appeals to George – no matter that his conventional conservative attitudes conflict with her laissez-faire approach to life.

The sale of a rare cookbook collection becomes the catalyst for George and Jess’s awakening. Before you know it, George and Jess fall into a modern version of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedict or Jane Austen’s Elisabeth Bennett and Darcy.

Goodman adds the foil of Jess’s sister, Emily, the bright entrepreneur and young CEO of a dot-com company; some reviewers have compared the sisters’ relationship to Marianne and Elinor in Austen’s Sense and Sensibility – emotions vs practicality. Others add to the drama: Jonathan, Emily’s boyfriend – more opportunist than creative, who steals one of her ideas for his own fledgling dot-com; the Hasidic Jewish rabbi and relatives, who become at once the comic and wise instruments in the story; and assorted friends and relatives – shuffling in and out of the action.

Just as the classic stories used the pursuit of love as the grounding, Goodman adjusts the relationships in her story . As characters grow disenchanted and enchanted, Goodman pricks your thinking about what really matters – in life, love, relationships, history – even principles of privacy and security.

Using modern history as the backdrop, Goodman cleverly connects the trauma of the dot-com bubble, as it grows and then crashes, to the lives of Generation Xers (born after 1975). Remember those too young millionaires of the early 90’s? How about the ones who invested everything, tasted the possibility of new lives with expensive cars, homes, toys – and then found themselves devastatingly with less than before?

Goodman might have stopped there, but writers today seem unable to not include 9/11 in the narrative. Everything is reevaluated and treasured for the moment, but life goes on.

Goodman ends the story on a high note – happily ever after – everyone finds their bliss or their purpose in life.

Taken as a love story of two opposites who attract or two sisters who rediscover themselves, The Cookbook Collector is a good read, but Goodman bravely attacks modern history too, and the book may allow you to find some comfort that “All’s Well That Ends Well” – at least in fiction – and give you some hope for the future.