Taken in order as they come to us in the book, the stories touch down hither and yon chronologically. And so, a couple of stories later, we find Henrietta thirty-five years earlier, in "The Island." She is now a young woman embarked on a summer's course in marine biology under the tutelage of a pseudonymous Louis Agassiz. Failing in health, the great natural historian is in his last year of life, still insisting, though now with an old man's poignant intransigence, that species are immutable, ideal emanations from God's mind, and that nature reflects divine design and purpose. Henrietta is handed a copy of Darwin's "On the Origin of Species" by a fellow student; she reads it and is stunned, disenchanted, and eventually inspired. Darwin's vision of nature breaks on her as a form of epiphany as she sits in a rowboat surrounded by buckets of sea creatures, "lumps of protoplasm."
The appeal of these stories lies in their material detail, in the flicker of metaphor, and in their incidental links, the way characters, or their scions or progenitors, appear in another frame. There is in that last aspect something that is both random and orderly, just as it is in nature and, at another level, in a human life. In life, however, we look for what is necessarily absent in evolutionary biology: That is meaning, or, put another way, a reason for living. In most fiction, that comes down to love, power, freedom, or peace, but for the main characters in these stories, what gives purpose to their lives is an urgent desire to discover the workings of nature. Their characters and personal relations are subsidiary to this and as their predicaments echo scientific concepts, their lives seem, for the most part, theoretical and posited, rather than lived.