Sunday, March 9, 2014

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

“You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others-- why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion... but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history-- added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.”  -Alma Whittaker, Protagonist, The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert).

The Signature of All Things is a breathtaking behemoth of a a novel. At five-hunderd-pages long, Elizabeth Gilbert has weaved a tale of life and death, of peace and frustration, of longing and satisfaction, of suffering and resolution. Her characters are well-drawn, her research is flawless, and her settings are marvelous. Much like Eat, Pray, Love, I found this book to contain life changing passages that will haunt me as I seek a new novel to read. (Something "cheeky" will have to do because I cannot follow up this book with anything that is supposed to be literary, my brain and my heart are far too spent.)

Alma Whittaker - I don't know how to describe her. She is the most well-written female character I've had the pleasure to know in almost all of literature. Her mark on the world rivals Elizabeth Bennet or Emma or any other true heroine of the Jane Austen novel craze. Growing up on the heels of Enlightenment across the world, her time with the reader spans the 18th and 19th centuries where discoveries were made that changed us all; particualry with regards to botany. Alma Whittaker is a self-proclaimed botanist, and an expert in Bryology.  Bryology is the branch of botany concerned with the scientific study of bryophytes. Bryologists are people who have an active interest in observing, recording, classifying or researching bryophytes. The word bryophyte is the collective term for mosses, hornworts and liverworts. I'd never heard of such a career until now, and I wonder how I've let an entire world escape my vision. I'm not saying I'm going to run out and study plants; I wouldn't know where to begin. But, I am saying we wander through life with a kind of blinders on about the natural world around us and Alma Whittaker helped me crack them, just a bit.

We start the novel by meeting her stalwart and hard-nosed father, raised on the notion of fending for oneself and building and empire from it. And an empire he built. Marrying an also stalwart woman, they create a life that is far from child-like for Alma Whittaker maintaing their own comforts and giving her a wide berth of freedom to engage her mind, and herself.

Alma, as she ages, is the picture of academic perfection. She is gracious and kind, highly intelligent, and built like a line-backer from what I gathered from description; sturdy, grounded, dutch. She is a model Christian girl with a deviant and wild mind that she hides beneath her composed exterior and within the wall of the binding closet off the library. Without giving too much away, I appreciated this juxtaposition of her character. At first I wasn't sure I would, but then I considered it as a modality of understanding the context of what lies beneath the surface of most people - what we don't know. And my friend, I assure you there is so very much. Her sensuality only propels who she is as a woman attempting to fit into a man's world. And it becomes the essence of her heartbreak at more than one time in her life - and isn't that always the way?

Alma’s research in this novel takes the reader deep into the mysteries of evolution and how this concept connects with the context of religion. She falls in love as a youth only to have her heart broken. She battles a love-hate relationship with her adopted sister Prudence who sacrifices more than Alma will ever understand and who, in the end, creates for Alma the unanswerable question of evolution: altruism. She feels the warmth and sting of friendship in Retta. She finds love again with a man named Ambrose Pike, a painter of unmeasurable talents who shakes her work deeper into the realm of the spiritual and the truly divine  She ventures out of the safety of her home at White Acre to become a greater person than she thought possible. She lives a fortunate and unfortunate life: a perfect paradox of existence. 

I laughed with Alma, cried with her, my heart broke for her, and in the end I felt like a I knew her; like she'd been my personal friend taking this journey with me. We are all Alma Whittaker, she is every woman.

The Signature of All Things made a mark on me, on my life. I feel proud to have read and if I could meet Alma Whittaker, the word's of my Granny come to mind - I would shake her hand and say, "I'm glad to know to you."

For more about Elizabeth Gilbert, visit her website at

A few other comments on this marvelous novel:

Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to uncommonly patient minds.” – by Barbara Kingsolver, The Bean Trees

“Ms. Gilbert has turned out the most ambitious and purely imagined work of her twenty-year career: a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist.” - The Wall St. Journal

“Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read.” - Booklist

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