Book Check: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
Title: The Signature of All Things
Tell Me About the Author: Elizabeth Gilbert is the worldwide literary superstar behind the 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Besides topping bestseller lists across the globe, what makes her a literary superstar? Well, how many writers of acclaim can say that they were played by Julia Roberts in a film adaptation of their own book?
Eat, Pray, Love is the story of Gilbert's failed marriage, and the year-long sabbatical she took to heal and reinvigorate her life. She spent her year in Italy, India, and Indonesia; in Bali, she met and fell in love with her current husband. Her story is now famous, but what readers might not know is that Gilbert had an acclaimed literary career before the success of Eat, Pray, Love. She published Pilgrims, a collection of short stories, in 1997, and followed it with her first novel, Stern Men, in 2000. Her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, was a finalist for the National Book Award.
And this Novel is About What? The Signature of All Things is about travel, science, religion, family, friendship, sexuality, and the passing of time. In essence, Gilbert's latest novel is about the elements of life itself. This heartfelt treatise of what it means to live a full and satisfying life is told through the trajectory of her heroine, Alma Whittaker.
Alma is a woman not of her time. Born in 1800 to a wealth Philadelphia family that runs an international botanical enterprise, she is a scholar before most children can even read. She takes comfort in knowledge, has respite in discourse, and finds peace in argumentation. But for all of her worldliness and mastery of the world's languages, she does not know people or her own internal drive. Life, then, becomes something of a science experiment for Alma that's in need of a theory to give it order.
Alma proves to be a brilliant botanical taxonomist, but with such a cloistered existence, her ability to connect with people is limited. Her relations are few and far between, but Gilbert populates Alma's life with characters of vivid temperament. There's Alma's iron fist of a father, the self-made Henry Whittaker, and Beatrix, his morally spotless and immaculately educated coffee-drinking Dutch wife. There's Prudence, a heavenly beauty with a charitable heart who forms the backbone of Philadelphia's abolitionist movement. And then there's Alma's late-in-life husband, Ambrose Pike, a mystical whiff of a man with a head for idealism and orchid lithography.
Gilbert knows how to capture local flavors of culture and landscape quite well, and she invokes the nineteenth century world with historical accuracy. What's even more engaging is Gilbert's reimagining of the scientific and philosophical shifts of the time. Evolution is on the cusp of explaining man's origins and Alma is caught up in the flourish of research and evidence mounting against the spirit world. But she soon discovers that the science of her day does not provide all answers, and perhaps there is more to Ambrose's divine pursuits than fanciful thinking. Perhaps there really is an intelligent creator. It's funny to think how one of the big conversations of our day is really just a rehash of discourse from 150 years ago.
Should I Read It? Gilbert's latest novel doesn't possess the immediacy of her former work, but it's still filled with the adventurer's love of life that permeates Eat, Pray, Love. It's a large, generous study of living with an inclination to truth-seeking and accurate observation. I would imagine some readers might find Alma a frustrating character. Why would someone of so great privilege spend an entire lifetime in scientific contemplation that borders on calculated monotony? As Gilbert shows, understanding is a form of experiencing, and by the end of the novel, it's clear that Alma understands her own life on her own terms. It takes eighty plus years for her to reach a clear thesis, but the process is a joy to read.