I haven’t read Eat, Pray, Love. That’s Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s most famous work – a New York Times bestseller and occasionally the subject of mockery since the Julia Roberts film-adaption. Despite this, I somehow went into The Signature of All Things knowing very little about Gilbert and her writing. Now I know – she’s a talented lady.
On the back cover, The Signature of All Things is described as a ‘big story’. That’s certainly appropriate, given the plot spans about a century (from the late 1700s onwards) and takes us across the world – to England, the US, Tahiti and Holland. It follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of Henry Whittaker – a botanist and self-made millionaire who saw what he wanted in life and took it, regardless of what anyone else had to say about it. At first glance, it seems Alma was born with the world at her feet, inheriting her father’s botanical empire along with his passion for discovery. The Signature of All Things is the story of her life as she struggles to makes sense of herself a woman of science, in a world that is teetering on the brink of the modern age.
I have to say, I really enjoyed this book. First and foremost, Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing is wonderful – clear, evocative and effortless. Some historical novels read in a way that is somewhat stiff. As a reader, you can sense the effort that the writer is expending to sound true to the time and it distracts you. Gilbert’s story opens in the year 1800, and from the first page, I knew this was a story I could fall into. She writes clearly and authentically, inviting us into Alma’s world as though we’re already familiar with it. The landscape is rich, and visual (appropriate for a book that centres on exploration of the natural world) – from the sweeping grounds of the Whittaker’s Pennsylvania estate, to the rolling waves of the Pacific and the black sand beaches of Tahiti. Basically, she seems like an awesome writer.
Alma herself is an intriguing heroine, certainly different from the usual fare. She is described as a tall, strong, slightly wild-looking young woman who is clever, curious and capable of questioning her world and the views and values that guide it. She’s deeply independent but human at the same time, longing for love, sex, affection and friendship. In fact, Alma’s sexuality features very prominently in the story – something that I found interesting given mainstream literature rarely reminds us that women (including women from the 1800s) are interested in sex, beyond consummating the love of their life. Alma lives in a time where science, philosophy and religion are still tangled together in the way people understand the world and how it operates, and we see the seeds of ideas that define the way we understand it today.
Amongst all this praise, I should mention that The Signature of All Things is a very lengthy novel, being more or less an account of Alma’s very lengthy life. There was no single narrative arc to follow and the plot was extremely intricate – dealing with characters who are significant in different phases of Alma’s life. It wasn’t boring to read, but I wasn’t compelled even to plough through it in a hurry.
Anyway, if you have time for a series of lazy afternoons – this one’s elaborate and imaginative and definitely worth your while!