The Disorder of Longing
Ada has everything—a fine Boston family, a handsome, wealthy husband, a beautiful home, and servants. Nevertheless, she’s a rarity in the 1890s: an intelligent, college-educated woman, who has been sufficiently bold to do some sexual exploration before her arranged marriage. Living in a stultifying gilded cage, shopping, entertaining, and giving birth are not what she craves. Ada understands she is expected to be subordinate in every way, an animate doll, content within severely prescribed limits. When her husband, enamored of intellectual pursuits, takes up continent intercourse as a “moral” way to keep the marriage childless until the rebellious Ada is “ready,” the last pleasure she has disappears. Her husband is also obsessed with orchids—the latest status craze—and the sensorially deprived Ada is too, although she has to study this “masculine” subject on the sly.
Somewhere around the middle, the story changes gears. Ada begins escaping, dressed as a man, and finally makes her way to Brazil with native orchid hunters to search for the rare, prized (and utterly significant) cattleya labiata vera. Victorian repression of ordinary human behavior is clearly a subject, but this is an uneasy book. It seems part feminist tract, part Wide Sargasso Sea, part romantic adventure and part quest. I turned the pages with interest and, occasionally, excitement, but I didn’t always believe in the characters or dialogue within the historical context. I wish the lives of all Victorian Adas had ended with such heady liberation—but, sadly, I doubt it.