The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert; published 2013 by Viking Press
Genre: Historical Fiction
Review in a word: Impressive
“Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.”
Gilbert’s nearly 500-page novel tells the story of the life of Alma Whittaker. Her father, Henry, is a botanical and pharmaceutical powerhouse—he commissioned the growing of many exotic medicinal herbs and plants and became fabulously wealthy. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, is an austere Dutchwoman who has the highest expectations for her daughter. Her parents ensure that Alma grows up surrounded by the brightest minds in science, and she is forever encouraged to explore on her own. Alma grows into a brilliant, gregarious botanist, specializing in the study of mosses. Alma has one sorrow: her intellect, buoyant personality, and plain features discourage any man from being interested in marrying her, despite the fact that she will inherit her father’s whole fortune.
Alma is hardy and she carries on, becoming rather reknown for her research of mosses. As a spinster, she continues to live with her parents and take care of them in her old age. Finally, when she is about 50, she meets Ambrose Pike, a man over ten years younger than her, with whom she shares a special communion. They talk about being soulmates. He asks her to marry him, and she says yes. But their marriage turns out to be a sham, and she sends him to live in Tahiti, where he dies a few years later. Out of guilt, she goes to Tahiti to find out what happened.
Meanwhile, the scientific world is full of discoveries that continue to keep Alma on her toes. And a man named Charles Darwin publishes The Origin of Species, confirming an idea Alma had been puzzling for many years.
I wasn’t very impressed with Eat, Pray, Love so I didn’t know what to expect from a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert. But it was surprisingly well researched and engrossing, with well-developed characters.
It’s very hard to summarize this book, because there is so much going on. Although I’m not big on science, I was absolutely fascinated by Gilbert’s description of what it must have been like to live in such a dynamic time. Darwin’s and others’ discoveries rocked the world, and Gilbert does a good job of looking at the implications of those discoveries on both science and religion. While in Tahiti, Alma meets an old priest who provides some of the most lovely descriptions of faith that I’ve read.
Science was not the only revolution happening in the 19th century. In her father’s vast library, Alma discovers a book about the enjoyments of pleasuring oneself. Alma becomes obsessed with sex and with the male body—not in a morbid, dirty way, but a respectful, awed way. Of course, with 19th century theories of modesty and proper behavior, Alma feels intensely guilty and dirty.
This book is all about discovery: Alma discovering herself, learning about life by studying her seemingly mundane mosses, and ultimately learning to be content with her lot. I loved this book because Alma is the most unlikely heroine: an old, ugly spinster. But you can’t help but root for her.
Without the love of our Lord, I am a wretch. This is the only miracle I can evidence, and sufficient miracle it remains for me. For others, perhaps it is not sufficient. I can scarcely fault them, for they cannot see into my heart. They cannot see the darkness that was once there, nor can they see what has replaced it. But to this day, it is the only miracle I have to offer, you see, and it is a humble one. – Reverend Welles
Under the right circumstances, everything was capable of transmutation. Extinction and transmutation had been occurring since the dawn of life, were still occurring now, and would continue to occur until the end of time—and if that did not constitute “continuous creation,” then Alma did not know what did.
The trick at every turn was to endure the test of living for as long as possible. The odds of survival were punishingly slim, for the world was naught but a school of calamity and an endless burning furnace of tribulation. But those who survived the world shaped it—even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them.