I was traveling back to the city this weekend from D.C. after Thanksgiving. I read half way through Sebastian Junger’s War and then ended up leaving it. So, I downloaded Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest figuring I had about 3 hours to sink my teeth into a 500 page book, at the very least I’d make some progress. I was honestly surprised at the pace at which this plot travelled. It was only about a three day read.
Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the well-known Eat, Pray, Love. To be honest, I have neither read the book nor seen the film (have never had the desire). So while I cannot compare, I think Gilbert’s foray back into fiction was a definite success. She turned the story of a lonely academic woman who studies arguably one of the more erudite plant species into a page-turner. If that’s not talent…
Alma Whittaker, a scientist of Gilbert’s invention, was born into a lineage of botanists. Her father helped to cultivate her love of science and inquiry, and more specifically of the natural world. The reader watches the entirety of Alma’s life, from a lonely child exploring the land beyond her house to a scientist at the time of Charles Darwin. Though I was pretty at peace at the way the book story concludes, part of me hoped (and was disappointed) that this woman would have a bigger impact, that her moments of unhappiness, longing, and questioning would lead to an answer and to happiness. The character is contented, but the happiness is relative. My head likes the realism, but my heart hopes nonetheless for the fairy tale ending.
There is a very specific reason that religion and religious characters are featured in this novel, though I won’t go into more detail so as not to ruin the novel. At first, I did not mind that aspect, but as the story continue, I found myself slightly annoyed with that aspect. While Alma is not a religious character, her travels invoke a revelation and type of awakening. Though this was a positive development for her psyche, I was anxious for this chapter in her life to close.
Men enter and exit Alma’s life. She is alone for most of the tale, which taken with the mores of the age, leaves Alma, the scientist, with countless unanswered questions about sex and sexuality. In this way, Alma actually reminded me a bit of Anne Frank. Sex is such a frank topic today, that it is always jarring for me to think about a time when the subject was taboo. Even for educated, so much went unexplained. I love when topics like this are weaved into the framework of stories, pushing the reader to open his / her mind and imagine.
So, if you read the description and you’re reaction is anything like mine was, ignore the impulses. Despite my minor complaints, I really enjoyed reading The Signature of All Things. I’m not particularly interested in botany and I’m a little bit over these strong female narratives (as mentioned in a previous post) at the moment; nonetheless, this story will take you in right away, and you won’t be able to break its hold until you’ve turned the final page.