The Signature of All Things

Signature of All ThingsWhen this book arrived for review I had a mixed reaction. I thought, Elizabeth Gilbert, yay! Because I very much enjoyed Committed and think she is generally a Good Thing. But then I read the blurb and I thought, a 19th century epic novel about botany? Well, hmmm, maybe. It didn’t seem a likely topic somehow for an author who has always seemed to have such modern concerns. And it is a very big book and I can be lazy about big books sometimes. So imagine my pleasure to find, in the closing pages of this novel, that I was really sorry to see it end. This was altogether a much more convincing and and enjoyable riposte to the 19th century novel than Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, and I think Elizabeth Gilbert has pulled off something quite special here.

The story belongs to Alma Whittaker, first born daughter of an lowly English thief turned pharmaceutical giant in Philadelphia and his education-crazy, strict and starchy Dutch wife. Alma inherits Henry’s passionate, determined genes and her mother’s love of order and reason. Crammed with a classical education, obliged to dine with collectors and specialists every evening at her parents’ table, and free to wander around her huge family estate, full of prime botanical specimens shipped in from all over the world, Alma grows up with science in her blood and a knowledge of botany to rival any expert. This turns out to be useful as she grows up big, strong and not terribly attractive, with a shock of red hair. When her parents adopt the beautiful orphan, Prudence, Alma is forced to realise that she is lacking something terribly important. But look, in this excerpt, what Elizabeth Gilbert does with such choice material:


            One winter’s day, when the girls were about fifteen years old, an old friend of Henry’s from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens came to visit White Acre after many years away. Standing in the entryway, still shaking the snow off his cloas, the guest shouted, “Henry Whittaker, you weasel! Show me that famous daughter of yours I’ve been hearing so much about!”

The girls were nearby, transcribing botanical notes in the drawing room. They could hear every word.

Henry, in his great, crashing voice, said, “Alma! Come instantly! You are requested to be seen!”

Alma rushed into the atrium, bright with expectation. The stranger looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He said, “No, you bloody fool –  that’s not what I meant! I want to see the pretty one!”

Without a trace of rebuke, Henry replied, “Oh, so you’re intrested in Our Little Exquisite, then? Prudence, come in here! You are requested to be seen!”

Prudence slipped through the entryway and stood beside Alma, whose feet were now sinking into the floor, as into a thick and terrible swamp.

“There we are!” said the guest, looking over Prudence as though pricing her out. “Oh, she is splendid, isn’t she? I had wondered. I had suspected everyone might be exaggerating.”

Henry waved his hand dismissively. “Ah you all make too much of Prudence,” he said. “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”

So, you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally.

This is what I loved about this novel. So many historical novels have these anachronistic heroines in order to portray strong women. But Gilbert takes a situation which happens to create a strong woman, one who is not endowed with the beauty that was a woman’s main marketable skill, and she gives her a brain instead, and a robustness that is wholly organic, and a plausible passion for science. Then she tells her story in a wonderful voice: straight, entertaining, informative, cunning. Alma is unlucky in love, but she’s prepared to take that on the chin. She settles down to a life devoted to the study of mosses until, nearing fifty, a visitor to White Acres turns her life upside down, and not in a way she could have predicted. I think this was the best, most original, most surprising love affair I’ve read this year. It’s also a battle between science (the word ‘scientist’ being coined during the course of the story’s history) and romanticism, a battle which of course no one wins. But it sets Alma off on a voyage to the other side of the world, and towards what might be considered her greatest triumph and her greatest tragedy.

Thematically, this novel is immensely clever. The 19th century is understood to be a time dominated by what we now call ‘grand narratives’; that’s to say this era believed that we were still heading towards the perfection of mankind and that there were various ways to tell the story of human history that stitched it up neatly and coherently – religion and science in particular were thought to hold the key to understanding all human life. All the strands of this well-organised novel come together in the theory intended to explain the development of biological life on the planet: Darwin’s theory of evolution. But Alma identifies the problem with that theory, and she is left holding it to the end of the book, ready, as it were, to give one big tug and watch the whole thing unravel. It seems so appropriate that, as an anomaly throughout her life, she should hold this awareness, but equally appropriate that, as an anomaly who has happily found her place and her purpose, she should be too respectful to apply it.

Apparently, it took Elizabeth Gilbert three and a half years to do just the research for this novel, and it shows. There were times when I wished her zeal for non-fiction had been curbed just a little. But there is so much entertainment in this novel, so much that is beautifully observed and well written that I forgave her. After all, any reader who approaches a contemporary version of the 19th century novel is going to have to expect a few digressions and be prepared to settle down to enjoy them. This is definitely the kind of book you want to get lost in; give it time, take it slowly and just enjoy the treat in store. This is character-driven fiction of the best sort.




41 thoughts on “The Signature of All Things

  1. this sounds delightful. I am not big on big books usually. But this goes on my leftNo not on my left on my left list that’s right. In case you are wondering about this crazy post, I just got a tablet and my back is out, so I am lying on the sofa reading your blog. And I am talking to the tablet which is typing my comment. For some reason it has difficulty understanding the word list. Got it that time.

    • Lilian! I am SO sorry to hear that your back is out! And sending all possibly sympathy as I still have a sore arm. I’m also impressed that you are managing voice recognition software – I am still somewhat scared of the prospect. I’m not a big book person generally, but I got to the end of this one with motivation left to spare!

  2. See, I had the exact opposite reaction to you: I read Eat Pray Love and curled my lip at it, whereas when I saw that Gilbert was publishing a new novel featuring a botanical heroine, I thought YAY! 🙂 Every review I read of The Signature of All Things makes me want to read it more, but I am forcing myself to wait until dreary January before I treat myself to it. The enforced wait is long and hard – but I am thrilled to see it will be worth it!

    • It’s a very good January novel – full of event and even a trip to warmer climes to cheer you! I’d love to know what you think of it. One of these days I want to do a survey to see how much our expectations affect a book. I worry that if I look forward to something too much, I often end up liking it far less than if I hadn’t looked forward to it at all! There’s contrary for you. 🙂

  3. I remember reading that Rose Tremain only researches for a fortnight so as not to impact too much on the story – I like that idea but assume she must be a speed reader.

    Somewhere between, perhaps?

    • Alma was the best part of the book for me. I can quite understand people not liking her memoir work (though I did enjoy Committed). This novel felt very different to me. Would love to know what you think of it.

  4. Well, I’m very glad to hear you liked this. I won a copy from Goodreads, but I’m a little intimidated by its length, and the thought of a book that needs its research trimmed a bit is enough to frighten me off. So it’s great to hear that this book is worth it. I’m definitely a Gilbert fan — people unfairly malign her all the time, I think — but I’ve often found I like certain writers’ nonfiction better than their fiction, and I’ve been worried this is the case for Gilbert. We’ll see!

    • I will be so interested to know what you make of it. Rohan didn’t like it and she definitely has a better idea of what constitutes a 19th century novel than I do! But I like Gilbert’s voice, and that worked again for me here. She manages to infuse so much humour into her situations, and I’m a sucker for anyone who can make me laugh!

  5. Intriguing excerpt – like a couple of the above commenters, I didn’t care overall for Eat, Pray, Love, but I have definitely become interested in this book thanks to reviews like this one.

  6. Well, this is proof (if we needed it) that great minds don’t always think alike: I reviewed The Signature of All Things a couple of months ago and didn’t like it at all. Well, that’s too simple: I liked some things about it, including its ambition, but I thought the writing was just dreadful and the love affair was absurd (and the [literally] climactic sex scene in Tahiti? really?) … but you explain your much more positive experience with your usual persuasiveness.

    • Naturally I rushed over to read your review! It’s excellent and oddly enough I agree with a lot of what you say, particularly about Retta and Prudence, who were underdeveloped as characters. And there certainly is a lot of information in the novel but then I think of the 19th century as an age of pretty wordy digression and was sort of expecting that over 500 pages. I wonder if what divides us here is that I was slightly dreading reading this as it didn’t tick any of my boxes in advance and was relieved to find I enjoyed it much more than I expected. Whereas you who already like Gilbert AND the 19th century novel might have had high hopes that were disappointed? You make me laugh about Tahiti – poor Alma, I was just glad by that point to see she got something that she wanted. 🙂

  7. Hmm… I’ve not been interested in this, mostly because I didn’t like Eat Pray Love all that much–I hadn’t even taken time to find out what this was about! But a 19th century epic about botany sounds like something I would like, if it’s well done. I seem to keep coming across books, fiction and nonfiction, that involve 19th century botany, and it’s fun to compare, so I’ll add this to my possibilities list.

    • How intriguing to think that 19th century botany has become a hot topic! I’d love to know how this compares to other books on the same topic (and indeed know what those other books are), and I’m always keen to hear your opinions of books I’ve read!

      • The books I have in mind don’t dwell on the topic; they just touch on it, but given that it’s not something I’m specifically interested in, I seem to come across it a lot, which is making me interested. One of the main characters in the Patrick O’Brian books is a botanist (among other things), and there was a botanist in Amitov Ghosh’s River of Smoke. Plus, David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo (nonfiction) talks a lot about 19th century science–more zoology than botany, but the two fields seem to intersect a lot. All the sea-faring involved, as well as the way the science of the time transformed people’s thinking about a lot of things, probably makes it a fruitful subject for fiction and nonfiction.

      • Fascinating! And I agree – the freshness of the discovery, the courage and determination required to make progress in new sciences, you can see how this would all create a wonderful atmosphere and lots of plot potential!

  8. Wow, you make Elizabeth Gilbert in general, and this novel in particular, sound so wonderful I had to double check that she really was the author of (excuse me while I vomit off to the side here) Eat Pray Love. Loathed that novel with all of my heart, and so of course I had no compulsion to pick up this one. You have intrigued me, because I respect you, but I doubt I could read my way through a other of her books. At least this one doesn’t sound so selfishly naval gazing as I found Eat Pray Love to be.

    • Having picked the 19th century as her landscape, there’s not much allowance for selfishness in the lives of her heroines! Although I suppose just being able to pursue her studies would have been considered selfish by society in that era. Still, there are so many good books to read out there, that I often find it a bit of a relief when there are authors I can cross off my list! 🙂

  9. Oh Litlove, just when I had made up my mind not to be bothered about this book. I liked her authorial voice tremendously in Committed and Eat Pray Love, but I haven’t enjoyed any of her fiction when I’ve tried it in the past, and I don’t tend to enjoy historical novels set in America. Now you have me reconsidering everything.

    • This is one big book, and clearly reviews are very mixed for it. So I guess I’m tending towards saying you can leave it off your list. Unless you get a copy out the library, enjoy the first few chapters a great deal and feel compelled to continue. If that doesn’t happen naturally then read other things! 🙂

  10. Now this is a strikingly different review from the one Rohan wrote a while back. I even had to go back to make sure, it was the same book. I’m tempted to find out for myself now.

    • I’d love to know what you think! I read Rohan’s review and didn’t disagree with the points she made – they just bothered me less. I wasn’t expecting to enjoy this at all, and I was surprised and pleased by how much I did, so I do think it’s worth factoring that into my response.

  11. Oh this looks good! I’m glad Gilbert’s trying fiction this time. A sweeping plot, a scientist heroin… If you want to try another one there’s Tracy Chevalier’s Remarkable Creatures.

  12. I’ve been waffling on whether or not to read this book – your review has convinced me! I enjoy Elizabeth Gilbert’s work quite a bit but was unsure about this one – now I can’t wait! I think perhaps she might end up owing you a royalty or two…

    • I would love to know what you think of it. Mind you, I imagine that in a few weeks time, you’ll be reading comforting novellas or short stories, if I remember it all rightly! I do like Elizabeth Gilbert’s voice – there is always a lot of humour in what she writes, and I appreciate that.

  13. I heard Gilbert interviewed twice last week and have been humming and haaing about whether or not to read this. I’m still humming and haaing given that the two people I most rely on disagree about it. I suppose I shall have to read it if only to adjudicate between you and Rowan.

    • I would love to know what you think! To be honest, I don’t disagree with the flaws that Rohan points out – they just bothered me less. I wasn’t expecting to like this, wasn’t even sure I’d get through it, so I was very pleased to find how much I enjoyed it. That undoubtedly influenced my reading!

  14. I’ve been very ambivalent about Elizabeth Gilbert–loved an earlier novel (Stern Men) and felt so-so about Eat, Pray, Love (liked sections of it), so I didn’t really look twice at this one as her more recent books hadn’t really appealed to me, but you make me want to not only go and read it, but to go and by it (mostly as the line at the library is veerrrrrryyyy long). I do love a really well done historical novel and this one sounds excellent! (Sorry I’ve been sort of MIA–am looking forward to catching up on your posts–I see I have missed lots of good stuff! 🙂 ).

    • I liked it so much more than I expected, but I see that reviews of it have been mixed. So it may be good to get in the library list, knowing that you might well have a nice experience when it arrives finally in your hands! When it comes to long historical novels, Wolf Hall is definitely better, if you haven’t read that yet. And never ever worry about not visiting – I know how it goes! I’ve been a dreadful commenter this autumn and winter and am so grateful to my friends for turning up here at all!

  15. So glad to hear you enjoyed it! I recently received it, and am equally a Gilbert fan and a nineteenth century novel fan who did not enjoy The Marriage Plot as much as I wanted to. I look forward to reading it even more.

    • I liked it so much more than I expected. It’s very science-y and packed full of information which you may well like (and given all you and Bookman have been doing to your garden, the botanical aspect may inspire you to greater heights!). Would love to know what you think of it.

    • I’ve never been that good with them, but I think I am finally understanding that immersion thing. I enjoyed living with the characters in this one for a while. Hopefully it will lead me to more chunksters!

  16. I’m so glad to read your positive review on this book! I’ve been very curious about it. I haven’t read any of her previous works, did not even want to. But this one, I’m very interested and even more now that I’ve read your post. Makes me think of Jane Austen for some reasons. No? 😉

    • Yes, I do see what you mean about Jane Austen. There is the same sort of strength about the female protagonist, and the same admirable ability to make the best of awkward situations. The wry humour is very like her too. What would Jane have written if she’d had the kind of life that had included international travel, I wonder!! 🙂

  17. Pingback: Weekend Miscellany: Bests and Worsts and Turgenev and Middlemarch and More! » Novel Readings - Notes on Literature and Criticism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s