As soon as I learned that a nineteenth century woman naturalist was the main character of Elizabeth Gilbert’s THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS, then opened to reproductions of antique floral paintings on the endpapers, I knew I wanted to read it, but I didn’t expect the humor that flashes through much of Elizabeth Gilbert’s fascinating novel. You’d hope I knew better, but I fell for the stereotype of over-serious scientist. I was surprised and smiling on the first pages, when an array of people respond to the main character’s birth with an array of blessings and disappointments that have little to do with the fact of a baby. Then we skip to a description of the grandfather, “an orchard man at Kew –a humble man, respected by his masters, as much as anyone can respect a humble orchard man.” There’s a sense of the ghost of Charles Dickens hovering, with an eye that sees through pretensions, with a tone that’s always warm-hearted.
The novel proceeds in a Victorian way, spending a good amount of time away from our heroine to learn about her genealogy. Fortunately, her father is a rogue who sails with Captain Cook, having adventures on sea and islands that will appear later, for a nice structural balance. And then there is Alma, who is shown never larger than life, but we are always aware of her sometimes awkward body, her excellent mind, her deep loves. We get well-drawn pictures of the world she loves: at dinner tables with good silver and china, in her library hideaway, in a cave made of mosses, aboard a ship, and in gardens. Her life seems believable in the decades of routines she follows, and the occasional wild surprises. She’s sort of odd and sort of ordinary, wonderful and baffling, so that I could keep reading even when the plot turned in what to me seemed a wrong way. I was glad I stuck it out. The ending couldn’t have been more perfect.
The themes of various passions are woven well throughout. I particularly liked a scene in which Alma apologizes because her writing about mosses has been read and admired, but only, she says, by about twelve experts in the field, and the man we see her falling in love with exclaims about what a marvelous number twelve is. Now we fall for him, too, and with Elizabeth Gilbert, who after selling millions of copies of EAT, PRAY, LOVE, knows a thing or two about what matters and what doesn’t. I wasn’t a big fan of that book, though I enjoyed the eating part. I love that the person who wrote that book could write this different and truly wonderful novel, and admire how she made such a transition. Some of how she managed to keep writing about whatever she feels most matters at the moment is suggested in her lovely essay about poet Jack Gilbert and the courage, wonder, and self forgiveness necessary for a writer, or anyone.