Posted by: jeannineatkins | December 16, 2013

What I’m Reading: The Signature of All Things

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.



  1. First review that’s made me want to pick this up. Thanks for highlighting the humor, which is always a great pull-in for me.

    • I really liked the Barbara Kingsolver review in the NYT, but I don’t think she mentioned the way this can really tickle a funny bone. She’s so immersed in the time and place that she can skewer it. It’s a hard humor to describe, as is Dickens’s, so I’m glad you’re willing to give it a try! It’s at the top of my list for this year.

      • I like the Dickens comparison and totally agree how hard that is to describe. I always say that GREAT EXPECATIONS is still the funniest book I’ve ever read, and then I can tell anyone why it’s funny. Except…Wemick.

  2. Excellent review of a fascinating new novel. Readers may be interested to know that Gilbert has admitted that she modeled Alma in part on the young Beatrix Potter, who studied fungi and mosses in hopes of contributing to the scientific community. Like Alma, Beatrix was also rebuffed by the misogynistic establishment who refused to take her theories or drawings seriously.

    • That is fascinating to know. I think we learn Alma’s mother’s name is Beatrix in those first pages, which does put that sensibility into the reading. I do like the happy ending we’re usually given to Beatrix Potter’s story — saving all that precious land — but look forward to reading your BEATRIX POTTER: A LIFE IN NATURE and learning so much more in cold, white January when greenery, fungi, rabbits, etc. will be most welcome.

  3. I’ve read at least a dozen interviews Gilbert gave about this book. She doesn’t always come off well. I too didn’t like Eat Pray Love–so self-indulgent. But this novel has me intrigued. And then you hand me the clinker, that interview about Jack Gilbert, her personal poet laureate. In this interview Elizabeth Gilbert seems less like an icon and more real. What’s more I’m flying to the library to find Jack Gilbert’s poetry. I think he might become my poet laureate, too. Thanks so much for the link! I’m passing it on.

  4. I might have liked the indulgent parts of Eat, Pray, Love — the pasta and wine — but I read a borrowed copy with all the Wise Passages underlined, and honestly, that seemed too much wisdom for me. Happily, you don’t find that in The Signature of All Things, which sticks to story.

    I’m glad you liked the link and you’re flying ahead of me to find Jack Gilbert’s poems. I’ll be curious what you think. My hand hovered over his collected works at the library recently, but I have a small poetry stack at home and am about to embark on The Goldfinch, so put it off for now. But if he becomes your poet laureate, I’d better get on it.

  5. This sounds like the perfect read over winter break, Jeannine. I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, etc. – and abandoned it after a few chapters, But this one sounds meatier!

    • You will have so many choices over winter break. I put aside Wally Lamb’s We are Water for a bit to embark on Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which I’ve heard so much good about. A friend just read it and is heading to the Frick to see that painting, there till mid-January, while picking up his daughter from college. Sounds so fun!

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