Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame returns to fiction with the ambitious The Signature of All Things, a novel chronicling the life of Alma Whittaker, 19th-century botanist and curator of mosses.
By ELAINA SMITH
The Kansas City Star
Gilbert sets her novel 200 years in the past and writes in lavish prose reminiscent of the Victorians. The book spans continents and decades, and as it follows Alma on her lifes journey, its filled with exquisite details regarding all kinds of plant life.
The narrative begins with Almas father, Henry Whittaker, a ruthless man who uses his knowledge of botany to become the richest man in Philadelphia. Alma is his miniature in female form, ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. But most important, Alma is as clever as her father: She seeks knowledge at every turn and becomes a brilliant scientist.
The plants Gilbert dwells on represent characters, and in particular, mosses represent Alma. After realizing that no one has studied mosses extensively, since they are not big or beautiful or showy like orchids, Alma dedicates her life to these parasitic, rootless entities. Mosses are a stupefying kingdom. Here was rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines.
Mosses become a symbol for Alma, representing overlooked and ugly things, yet hiding a brilliant mind underneath their plain shell.
Rather Dickensian in style and structure, Gilberts novel is also populated with oddities in human form. Among them are Almas adopted sister, Prudence, who lives in poverty in opposition to slavery, and Almas mother, Beatrix, a staid and practical Dutchwoman who practices Euclidean landscaping.
The novel hits its stride when Gilbert introduces Ambrose Pike, a talented lithographer who dreams of becoming an angel of God. Hes a beautiful but deeply sensitive and fragile man. Alma, at this point, is 48 years old; never married and never departed from her fathers Philadelphia estate.
When Ambrose and Alma come together, their relationship is not only a sharing of ideas and knowledge but a spiritual one. Gilbert drifts into the supernatural when Alma and Ambrose decide to marry after sharing their thoughts telepathically in a book-binding closet.
The marriage turns sour after only a month, and Alma sends Ambrose to Tahiti to manage a vanilla plantation. Ambrose leaves without protest, obedient man that he is. Some years later, Alma learns that he has died from an infection in the hot climate.
The novel shifts into more recognizable Gilbert territory after Ambroses untimely death personal enlightenment while traversing an exotic locale.
Like Gilbert in her memoir, Alma journeys to Tahiti to unravel the mystery of her husband. Gilbert chronicles this journey with a close eye, from the leaking, ramshackle cottage in which Alma lives to the crabs scuttling on the sandy beaches to the native Tahitians who steal and return Almas belongings at random. Alma searches in the Tahitian jungle for months until finding the man who supplies the answers about her husband she so desperately seeks.
The Signature of All Things, though sprawling, follows a direct course most of the way. It falls off the tracks when Alma discovers what her husband had been up to in Tahiti and tries to heighten her own experience in what turns out to be an odd and jarring attempt at spiritual and sexual awakening.
The novel returns to its course thereafter, leisurely following Alma into her 60s, 70s and 80s, as she writes a thesis based on yes, you guessed it the signature of all things. Connections abound in every living thing, Alma discovers; she forms a scientific theory of adaptation and evolution rivaling Darwins. But Alma never publishes her findings an avoidance by Gilbert to dilute actual history within the context of fiction.
By the end of this 500-page, good though not brilliant epic, the novel seems to be searching for its own signature, its own take-away lesson about life. Gilbert refuses to let the novel and Almas journey speak for themselves so she tidily oversimplifies the connection between those fascinating mosses and Almas own life.
Elaina Smith is a graduate student in creative writing at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. To reach her, send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.