What do you expect from a new novel by the author of Eat Pray Love?
You probably expect it to be set in the modern day. You expect a love story. You expect some light lashings of popular culture. You expect characters learning for some deeper meaning and identity. You’d expect lots of readability, safely clear of literary fiction.
Well, for the most part you’d be wrong. Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, is a revelation. I’ll be clear: It’s very, very good.
Yes, it has a strong female protagonist, exotic travel, a strong theme of identity. But it’s also a stylish, research-crammed historical novel with rollicking period detail, an exploration of the seeds of evolutionary thought, an exquisite exposition of botanical study, and an unwavering portrayal of an ungainly, ugly, hammer-minded woman with some unacceptable predilictions and an obsession with moss.
The novel begins with a fast-paced rip-roaring account of the life of protagonist Alma’s father as he exceeds his station as a lowly garden boy at Kew to travel around the world in the late eighteenth century, supping on all that nature and humanity has to offer. We’d be quite happy to stick with this spiky, driven character but in time move on to his similarly spiky, driven daughter, an ivy creeper in an age where a flower is sought. Alma’s lfelong lesson in fighting for her life is at the service of a larger plot device, a survival-of-the-fittest Darwinian theory, but it’s also the most satisfying human story of a book which despite its Victoriana-like spectrum of characters consistently denies this cast the happy endings we might expect. Alma is difficult, passionate, out of time – and the happiness she gains is at her own hands (in more ways than one). Not for her a pat romance. And don’t worry if historical fiction isn’t your thing – I refer to The Guardian’s review: “One of Gilbert’s most impressive achievements is making Alma’s journey a universal one, despite anchoring her protagonist’s life in a different time and sending her to the furthest corners of the unexplored earth.”
It’s been pointed out that the second half becomes decreasingly plausible and perhaps Alma’s latter exploits do stretch credulity, but by this point we’ve been so immersed a boundary-pushing age and family that we’re along for the ride. One thing that won’t surprise you from Gilbert is the sheer readability. In the words of the New York Times: “Alma commits her life to ceaseless study, but reading this vibrant, hot-blooded book about her takes no work at all.” The writing is voluptuous, unctuous, varied, but light on its feet as a foxtrot.
Too late I fear, with the water streaming downwards from the sky and upwards through the holes in your winter shoes that you forgot about since last year, but this is a perfect book for a holiday – and I don’t mean to damn it with that praise. It’s a joy to read, with a plot you want to see to the end but a pleasure you don’t want to finish. It’s double the book that We Are Completely Beside Ourselves is, even with the latter’s fancy prize nomination. Hats off to Gilbert.