This story is long, spanning one character’s entire lifetime and half the world, and it requires you to fall in love. You have to fall in love with Alma Whitaker, with botany and with the world if you’re going to get through every page of this character-driven kind of directionless novel.
In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert takes a different path from her previous novels. Alma Whitaker is flawed and beautiful and so entirely her own person that I imagine Gilbert must have mourned the loss of her after finishing this book. Alma’s sister, father, and husband are all interesting, but it’s quite obvious that Alma was Gilbert’s love and her focus, and she really is an interesting character well worth spending the time with.
Alma Whitaker is a botanist with a particular fascination with mosses. Her childhood with her doting father is something of a backwards fairy tale; though she’s his favorite by far, she doesn’t realize this in the moment because Henry Whitaker is a stern and difficult man who shows love by sharing intellect, not affection. Alma spends half her life with her heels in the sand, refusing to budge from what she believes, and the other half floating in the clouds, a victim of her femininity and the restrictive culture she was born into. Determined to be her own person, she doesn’t allow her gender to keep her from becoming a respected (in some circles) botanist, yet her focus on marriage, her sexual yearnings and her own perceived ugliness sidetrack her on more than one occasion. Alma is, in actuality, as uncertain of her own path as Gilbert seems to be.
There is a strength and poetry to Gilbert’s language that is not as present in her previous works, and reminded me of writers like Geraldine Brooks and Alice Hoffman. There is growth to her writing here, a far cry from Stern Men, that’s for sure.
I wish, however, that she had challenged herself a bit more with the plot. It feels a bit unfocused, as though she wasn’t quite sure what she was writing about. And she probably could have benefited from a few less gimmicks, namely the ease of wealth. I often feel like authors make their characters wealthy because it’s easier. A character with an endless bank account has no limitations. She can pick up and travel to Tahiti if she chooses, or request a visit from a great scientist or be part of a giant living planetary mobile (truly a lovely scene, btw.) If she’s wealthy this is all believable, and there is an ease to deciding where to take her, because she can go anywhere. I feel like this book would have been better if Gilbert had avoided such coincidence and ease. Perhaps this could have brought more focus to her examinations of evolution and the beautiful dialogue she’s participating in between science and the church.
Still, this book tells me there is something world-changing on the horizon for Gilbert. She’s learning and growing and I’m excited to see what comes next. This is a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. It wasn’t quite to the caliber I expected, but it was well worth reading and parts of it will stay with me, I’m sure.
If you enjoy The Signature of All Things, I suggest:
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