This book is devoted to a rather specific time in the life of evolution’s discoverer, Charles Darwin. From his return on his monumental voyage on The Beagle until his publication of his masterpiece The Origin of Species, this book seeks to explain and re-live those 20 years. What this book mostly seeks to display about Charles are his inner emotions during what were some of the most productive and difficult times in his life. During this period he experienced marriage, children, the death of children, harrowing sickness, and much interaction with scientists from across the world. Quammen seeks to interpret Darwin’s feeling and thus gain motives for his actions through the analysis of letters, books, and outside accounts. Sometimes he hits the nail right on the head such as when describing what may seem to be the ultimate marriage to Emma. However, as he describes, religious tension and deep sadness most likely was an unspoken skeleton in the closet for the entirety of the marriage. They were still the rock of each other’s lives as highlighted through another emotionally trying experience, the death of his daughter Annie. This time, the two could barely stand to be away from each other and the author readily conveys this emotion.
However, in other aspects it seems the author wants to read in too much to Darwin’s life and/or simply inserts needless commentary. Sometimes Quammen will paraphrase a quote of Darwin’s for no apparent reason. Sometimes he will make baseless statements after a barrage of facts that seems to be lacking any substantial evidence. The point of the book is really to give the reader an emotional attachment to Darwin and the pressure that he must have felt in preparing to release a book that he knew would change the world. The reader is expecting this event for the whole book and thus it does present a surprising element of suspense. After reading, one will definitely feel more emotionally attached to Darwin in a way that is not possible through the autobiography, and one will have an appreciation for some of the events that may have made Mr. Darwin reluctant.