The Signature of All Things

Eat, pray, love – then write a really good novel.

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking, 512 pages

It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a novel this much.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s epic The Signature of All Things is a triumph from start to finish. The tale is riveting (who’d have thought 19th-century botany could be?); the characters are endearing and bumbling; the scope sweeping (a human lifetime, an entire history of life on earth); and the science both accurate and amusing.

As a reader, I must admit that I approached this 500-page book with some trepidation, fearing that it might prove a bloated attempt to cash in on the overwhelming success of Gilbert’s memoir “Eat, Pray, Love.”

I should not have worried. “The Signature of All Things” is a witty historical fiction that may remind readers of Dickens, Austen, or – for a more contemporary point of reference – the novelist Carol Shields.

The novel tells the story of Alma Whittaker, born in Philadelphia in 1800 to a Dutch mother and wealthy botanist father, Henry, who’s made his fortune selling the antimalarial “Jesuit’s bark” (quinine) he cultivated while living in the Andes. A plucky go-getter and quick learner, Henry expects British scientists to welcome him into their exclusive fold upon realizing the breadth and value of his botanical expertise.

Instead, he’s dismissed as a mere upstart – which makes Henry vow to become the richest, most powerful botanist on earth. He succeeds. He sets up a thousand-acre estate in Philadelphia, marries the daughter of a revered Dutch botanist, cultivates rare medicinal plants, and makes a killing.

Yet the story really belongs to Alma, who inherits her parents’ insatiable curiosity about the natural world, spending her childhood days with her eye on a microscope, her hands in loam, her thoughts on books. Alma’s crush on a fellow botanist goes nowhere, while her beautiful adopted sister never lacks for suitors. Alma continues to study and publish, and at last narrows her focus to bryology – the study of mosses.

Alma does eventually find love, but along with it comes a mystery so deep it beckons her to Tahiti. At age 53, she pens what she calls her “theory of competitive alteration,” describing the way mosses evolve in order to survive varying conditions. Coincidentally, one of the scientists she most admires, Charles Darwin, has come to the same conclusion while studying finches in the Galápagos.

But evolution fails to explain the final vexing question Alma seeks to answer for the remainder of her days: How to explain human altruism?

Aside from the fascinating sweep in “The Signature of All Things,” I most enjoyed Gilbert’s tone – the attitude she takes toward her characters. She tells this story like an amused, intelligent insider, as if her characters are in on the joke – indeed are a few steps ahead, ready with a quick repartee. Here’s Gilbert’s description of Alma, as part of a passage in which her father clumsily reassures her that even ugly girls – like her own mother – can find a husband: “Alma had grown tall as a man by now, with broad shoulders. She looked as though she could swing an ax. (In point of fact, she could swing an ax, and often had to, in her botanical fieldwork.) This need not have necessarily precluded her from marriage. Some men liked a larger woman, who promised a stronger disposition, and Alma, it could be argued, had a handsome profile – at least from her left side.”

I also admire Gilbert’s prose, her hardworking verbs and unexpected metaphors. Here’s a description of Henry’s ledger: “His penmanship was shamefully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page.” 

This book, Gilbert’s sixth, is an impressive tale of science, history, and a woman’s evolving spirit told by a writer at the top of her game.

Elizabeth A. Brown is an essayist and  master of fine arts candidate at Bennington College

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