Before I start, there is one thing to get out of the way: I’m not a book snob. I’ve read Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love with the same perpetuating curiosity that makes me read all books. To me, a story is a story. Discriminating against books based on marketing genres and covers would be equal to submitting to borders drawn in the sand by other people, which is the opposite of what books are supposed to do with our minds.
That said, The Signature of All Things is a well-written and, to my non-botanical mind, a well-researched novel. One that’s full of tiny, down-to-earth enlightenment moments that made me put it on my chest after I’ve finished reading it and think for a while before I got on with my life. And even more tellingly, I woke up with Alma Whittaker and her wondrous mosses the next morning.
And they made me smile.
The novel follows Alma Whittaker’s life—from birth to death—in a simple, linear way. But, as Gilbert often remind us throughout the book, Alma is her father’s daughter. So the book is as much about Henry Whittaker as it is about Alma.
Henry Whittaker was a “…poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city…”. Born in London, Richmond he grew up “…sleeping one wall away from the pigs…”. He was the youngest son of a worker in Kew gardens, who had once managed to save the king’s favourite apple tree and thus had been nicknamed “the Apple Magus”. Henry starts working in Kew gardens at the age of ten. This shapes his destiny, as well as the destiny of his only daughter. From there on botany becomes the family trade.
At the age of thirty-two, already very wealthy and well-travelled, Henry Whittaker washes up on American shores and settles down in Philadelphia with his Dutch wife Beatrix. That’s where Alma was born and where the majority of her life happens.
Alma’s childhood is exemplary of what her life would be: self-sustained, lonely but full of thirst for knowledge and, ultimately, very satisfying. We are taken on long walks in her father’s woods with her trusted pony when she is only a small child. Later, we discover in those same woods Alma’s passion in life: mosses. Much the same way we go to Tahiti with her in search for The Boy.
The book is written sparingly from details and research point of view. It’s easy to burden the prose of any historical novel with useless material. Elizabeth Gilbert has escaped this trap with elegance and, seemingly, with ease. Yet, places and characters are drawn out with depth and with compassion that makes them believable and beloved. This is Gilbert’s strongest point in writing, I believe: detailing the thoughts and changes in her protagonists’ minds to a point of their inevitable growth; and ours alongside theirs.
One thing I wished for, as I progressed the five hundred pages of the novel, was that
Gilbert would trust her readers more.
The reminders and repetitions throughout the book spoiled the journey a bit. If we didn’t want to know Alma, we’d have stopped reading by page 305. Since we’ve passed the mid-point of the book and we are still reading, there is no point telling us that “Alma Whittaker was a woman of quick calculation, and far from sensual innocent.” We’ve watched her study Latin, French, Greek and Dutch by the age of ten and we’ve been to the Binding Closet with her countless times. We know what Alma is like and how her mind works. We are not “onnozelaaren”; or if we are we don’t like it pointed out.
This takes me to the point of discord in this novel: the going-ons in the Binding Closet. Other reviewers have accused Gilbert of inserting these elements for sensationalist sake. They’ve found them disturbing and off-putting. I did not find them disturbing and I didn’t think any less of Alma because of her, somewhat dubious, choice of past time. On the contrary, they made Alma all the more human despite her being anchored in time three centuries away from mine.
Elizabeth Gilbert has been ambitious in undertaking the writing of The Signature of All Things. She has attempted an almost Marquez-like outlook on the wholeness of life, minus the magical reality; a Hilary Mantel’s on-look on a historical subject with a twist. Only time would tell if she’d been successful in her attempt, but I can gladly confirm that The Signature of All Things is well-worth reading and thinking about it afterward. Gilbert has managed to make Alma’s personal journey somehow universal. That in itself is wondrous.