Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book, “The Signature of All Things,” takes readers on a grand journey. It’s long and sprawling like a 19th Century novel, but modern in its treatment of much that was hidden in that earlier century. Because I loved “Eat, Pray Love “ and “Committed,” (Gilbert’s memoir about marriage), and always watch her TED talk (here) when needing inspiration, I rooted for her with this novel. And kept thinking as I read, “she’s knocked it out of the park.”
At first it looked to be a swashbuckling story of the self-made plantsman Henry Whittaker, but his daughter Alma is the central figure in the book and a singular heroine. Flawed, vulnerable, heroic – Alma is very smart and a scholar, not so pretty and often a fool.
She seeks always to get to the bottom of things, to understand the natural world and to live “in humanity’s most recent moment, at the cusp of invention and progress,” but she often misreads others. And the plot comes to revolve around a huge misunderstanding, a tragic failure to comprehend a beloved person.
Gilbert writes other vivid characters – Alma’s father and strict Dutch mother, her mother’s companion Hanneke (a lifelong voice of stolid wisdom), her fair of face adopted sister Prudence, and the other worldly Ambrose – and takes us from London’s Kew Gardens to Philadelphia to Tahiti and to Holland. She describes hardships on sailing vessels and the comforts of food and libraries and a well-arranged workroom, while filling the book with the beauties and curiosities of plants.
In many ways the book is about work, about satisfying, lifelong work – Alma studies mosses the way Darwin studied finches and barnacles. Alma finds pleasure and solace in her work, as Gilbert must.
Early on, in a magical scene, an astronomer attends a ball in his honor at Alma’s father’s mansion. On this hot summer night the party has gravitated outdoors under the stars. The astronomer recreates a model of the universe, using guests as heavenly bodies – planets and constellations – and sets them in motion. The child Alma wants to be part of the scene, so her father (who adores her) declares her a meteor, and she darts amongst the planets and stars. And that’s the book really – people circling in their fixed orbits occasionally encountering one another, with Gilbert’s Alma seeking and searching.
It’s such a pleasure to read Gilbert’s voice rollicking through the science and adventure of plant hunters, botanical artists, and scientists, as she leads Alma all the way to an imaginative speculation, which posits the possibilities of the signature of all things.
I read that Gilbert’s research comprised more than three years of reading and note taking (a single fact on each of thousands of index cards), showing up and doing her work. But when she began to write, her muse clearly came to sit so she might access her wonderful imagination to make this amazing book.
Olé to you Elizabeth Gilbert – olé!