The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert has been on my radar for some time now — it’s difficult to avoid anything by the author of Eat, Pray, Love. I mean, Julia Roberts starred as Liz Gilbert in the film adaptation. Talk about juggernauts.
I digress. I added this book to my Goodreads queue, and picked it up shortly before the end of 2015 (meaning I’m not counting it toward my Reading Challenge). In case you haven’t read it, Goodreads gives a fair synopsis:
Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction — into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist — but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
I’m giving The Signature of All Things four out of five stars.
Honestly, I really struggled with the rating for this one. On one hand, it’s impossible not to play the Expectation Game with Liz Gilbert. I loved Eat, Pray, Love, so I had high expectations for The Signature of All Things. In a sense, Gilbert delivered: as always, her prose is beautiful, and has a knack for wrapping up sentiment and storyline in a masterful way.
In another sense, however, the plot of the story is somewhat disconnected. There are several distinct stories, broken into sections, which are completely separated from one another: the story of Henry Whitaker, the childhood of Alma Whitaker, followed by Alma’s early adulthood, then her mid-life, then her time in Tahiti, and finally, her time in Amsterdam. Each piece on its own is quite good, but they don’t make for a cohesive whole. The knitting of each piece to the others is haphazard, and while I understand the story follows her life and that life can be haphazard, I want a book that makes sense of those transitions in an elegant way. This book didn’t do that for me.
What saved The Signature of All Things for me wasn’t the ravings of Ambrose Pike (which I found annoying) or the ultimate peace that Alma makes with her life (finally redeeming her), but the glimpses of biology and the natural world. Gilbert managed to make moss interesting, and to write about the natural world that is relevant and interesting — that we invest ourselves in because of Alma. Ultimately, it is this, paired with the masterful prose, and our strangely likeable protagonist and cast of supporting characters (Henry, Beatrix, Hanneke, Dees, Welles, etc) that made this book an enjoyable read, and one that I would recommend to a very specific type of reader.