The Signature of All Things


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.


2 thoughts on “The Signature of All Things

  1. Hi – I stumbled across your blog after reading a comment you left on another blog. I followed you over here and read first your entry on A Little Life, where you spoke of that dinner party and how when you said “Reading is kind of my thing”, no one really quite got how seriously you meant that. And immediately I was hooked – this is me, too. So I am browsing through your posts, and just had to pause here. I enjoyed this book, was impressed by how well-written and researched it was (unexpected, as you say, after Eat, Pray, Love), but. BUT. Did you not find it difficult to accept that in the end all of that endless soul-searching culminates in her extreme desire to give a man fellatio? I found that scene in the cave nearly insurmountable and it coloured the rest of the book for me. I am not a prude, this has nothing to do with prickliness about sex generally, I like a well-written sex scene, but this raised the hair on the back of my feminist neck. I had to push myself to finish, quite honestly. Loved the insights into botany, though, and enjoyed the notion that a woman might have gotten to evolution before Darwin.

    1. I COMPLETELY agree with you and am in fact surprised to reread this post and discover I didn’t mention it – probably because I AM a prude and veered away from talking fellatio and masturbation when this blog’s most ardent reader is my mother (who incidentally also read this book and very similar criticisms to you.) You can rationalise why Gilbert did the sexual theme in general, however jarring I found it, but the cave scene is simply bizarre. I think it is worth pushing beyond as you did though, as there is more of value than that incongruous episode suggests.
      Very glad to hear you relate to the blog as a fellow reader and thanks for the comment!

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