First-time author Middleton tackles the life of Alexandra David-Neel, the first Western woman to enter the forbidden land of Tibet. Alas, this bio casts more worshipful heat than light. Born in Belgium in 1868 to bourgeois parents, David-Neel seemed ready to run before she could walk. As a young teen-ager, she took off alone for England and Spain; as a young woman in Paris, she lived like a bohemian scholar, studying Sanskrit and debating spiritual questions at the Theosophical Society and in fashionable salons. Armchair debates would never satisfy her, however. In Tunis, as a cabaret singer, she married a man who would permit her to penetrate the mysteries of Buddhism. Domestic and pragmatic to the core, the handsome Philippe Neel nonetheless financed a trip for his restless wife that was to stretch into a 40-year odyssey. Starting in middle age, David-Neel travelled to India, where she shunned British dinner parties to witness forbidden Tantric rites. She went north to the kingdom of Sikkim, where she became the soul-mate of a magically charming young prince. When he died (probably poisoned), David-Neel crossed the border for Tibet. Here, she was accepted as a pupil by a mysterious gomchen, an adept in Tantra, the esoteric heart of Buddhism. Finally, she penetrated to the holy city of Llasa, home of the Dalai Lama. Even dressed as a beggar woman, David-Neel struck lamas and humble wayfarers alike as a dakini—a woman of extraordinary powers. The Tibetans treated her as if she was the reincarnation of a great lama, and David-Neel herself always had the sense that she had finally come home. A pleasant, earnest read, but too brief and too bland to capture this complex and extraordinary woman.
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