Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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“What a grim view! I wish you did not consider our lives so bleakly. On the whole of things, Alma, I still see more wonder in the world than suffering.”

“I know you do,” said Alma, “and that is why I worry for you. You are an idealist, which means that you are destined to be disappointed, and perhaps even wounded. You seek a gospel of benevolence and miracle, which leaves no room for the sorrows of existence …Moreover, you make me feel like a horrid little marplot, because I sit here making such dull arguments and because I cannot live in the same shining city upon the hill that you inhabit.”

On the cusp of the 19th century, a bold and inquisitive woman, by name of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of an eminent botanical explorer, is born.

Alma is a heroine unlike any I’ve encountered before – and perhaps the prime reason I am so drawn to this book as to read it twice in one summer, and once again the next summer, and to find it no less impressive than the first time I set off on the voyage through its ebullient pages. I have just finished reading this book for the third time, and think it’s high time I sang its praises in a review.

There is no more apt word for this novel than panoramic – spanning from 1760 with the birth of Alma’s father, Henry Whittaker, to the late 1800’s up to the end of Alma’s life, and the beginnings of a new era of understanding with the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. It is a novel about the pleasures of discovery – scientific, personal, sensual, and spiritual. Above all else, it is Gilbert’s weaving of these manifold forms of discovery, which truly captures the exploratory spirit of the century.

Besides the abundant historical, geographical, and botanical details, which lend the tale an immersing verisimilitude; it is Alma’s life, her personal dreams, disappointments, heartbreaks and hankerings that make the novel so engaging. Alma is a woman thirsty for knowledge. While university was still very much inaccessible to a woman in 1820, Alma prowls after knowledge nevertheless, persisting in her quest for understanding in the comforts of her mansion home in Philadelphia, built by her preposterously rich father. But despite her enviable economic privilege and unexcelled education, Alma yearns for something more.

Our female lead is questing, curious, libidinous, insecure, obstinate, dubious, vulnerable and foolish, all at once. Unyieldingly intelligent, and at times self-absorbed and impulsive, Alma Whittaker positively throbs with life, is the coal-and-ice heroine through which we can feel the red-blooded pulse of history.

But this story has so much more to offer in character esprit than Alma. It is a story about her father, and her mother; her adopted sister, Prudence, and their kooky comrade, Retta. It is about the stalwart housekeeper, about Alma’s frail first love, and the bold cast of characters she meets on her travels, as she sails from Philadelphia to Tahiti, from Tahiti to Amsterdam, and many places in between. Most of all, however, it is about the man who irreparably alters her as she falls in love with him.

This book was never meant to be a romance, in the conventional sense. There is certainly a love story, but one fraught with discrepancy, marred by an insurmountable discord between ideas and worldviews that ultimately ends in carnage. Alma and Ambrose’s irreconcilable differences, henceforth, becomes the crux of this tale about a wider ongoing conflict between science and religion in the 19th century.

There is no conventional happy ending, either, but nor does the story come to a completely bleak or cataclysmic closure. It speaks to the marvels of the natural world – the miseries, too – and the fleeting wonder that is life in what Alma designates “Human Time”.

I like that Alma can be read in so many different ways – as any well-rounded character should be. Personally, I read her as more selfish and frustrating the third time around – perhaps because I had the foresight of knowing where her choices would lead, whereas at first, I was completely swept up, empathising more with the disastrous decisions one can make whilst in the clutch of heartbreak or intense disappointment.

Why else do I love this story so much? I love that I can feel the pulse of history . I love every one of the characters – intensely flawed, headstrong, ridiculous, persistent, weak, deluded, wise, repressed – and all of their unique idiosyncrasies. I love how vividly Gilbert paints the marvels of the universe – whereby even something as apparently mundane as moss can be as awe-inspiring as the cosmos (indeed, that it is its own cosmos), whereby wonder lies everywhere in nature, and that we can see it, if only we pay close enough attention.

Marriage kerfuffles, vibrant dialogue, and slick wit make this book about so much more than Victorian science. It is as entertaining as any good period drama, with a good dose of philosophical spiel, and a thoroughly modern candour. It is also breathtakingly honest about sexuality – unfortunately for Alma, a taboo topic in Victorian society – but certainly not one from which Gilbert shies in this very contemporary telling.

In prose that is buoyant and peppy without detracting, Gilbert tells an open-hearted tale about exploration and wonder, with very real, warm-blooded characters whose aspirations and adversities will garner the sympathies of any reader. This book may be about science, but it is suffused with a certain kind of magic; in which an acute sense of the unattainable, the elusory, and the divine lingers, indefatigable, even at the heart of Alma’s avid quest for certainty and knowledge.

after she fell

a crinkle
in the earth’s cheek
caught her –
windswept, limp,
and ribbon-stripped
from every
angle.
so many angles!
earth cried,
so many cracks!
and cricks!
so many irretrievable
ticks –
denuded girl
strewn about
like images
like smells
on the pavement
hills and hills and hills
obscure her
grubs of feet
and twelvefold fury
every mouth
has its music
but every girl
has her routes
her particular drifts
she longed to be fluidic
a sort of purée
to be daubed
all over the earth –
the kindly, crinkly skin.
But Mademoiselle, I implore you –
Do not soften. Stay with us.
It’s far
too soon
for you
to melt.
Stay solid.

trance

In gloves made of shadow,
I would slink,
undiscerned,
through the gauze, enter
the sultry, lemon-swept
death-scent
of her deranged imagination.

I would brush
each eggplant-violet lip.
I would peel
her from
her viscous nightmares –

where sad sequences seep
graceful and paralytic

from the cracks
in her hands
made by the day.

The blueblack
light
strains against
her brow, even now.

Ella & Ellenore : Pt I

Ellenore: Isn’t this, like, a personality disorder?

Ella: What is?

Ellenore: Envisioning yourself as two different people? Assigning names to those people – writing scripts about their interactions – that’s a surefire sign of insanity.

Ella: Probably. In someone’s books, yes.

Ellenore: Don’t you care?!!

Ella: *shrug*

Ellenore: ????!!!!

Ella: It’s, like, an ontological metaphor.

Ellenore: ??????!!!!!!

Ella: It helps me to conceptualise my rational and irrational faculties in terms of human traits and motivations —

Ellenore: Sounds like insanity to me.

Ella: I guess.

Ellenore: Don’t you care? About people thinking you’re weird?

Ella: Not really.

Ellenore: Oh, please. Pull the other one.

Ella: Seriously.

Ellenore: You have always worried about what other people think of you.

Ella: Actually, that was you.

Ellenore: Um, sorry to have to inform you, but I AM you, babe.

Ella: …

Ellenore: …

Ella: Yeah. I guess so. Ugh.

Ellenore: “Ugh”??!

Ella: Sorry. It’s just, I don’t really enjoy your company very much.

Ellenore: Why not??

Ella: I just think I’m like, a really chill person…or I would be, if it wasn’t for you.

Ellenore: CHILL? Why would you want to be CHILL???

Ella: *shrugs*

Ellenore: CHILL people are MORONS.

Ella: If you say so.

Ellenore: They’re only CHILL because they’re completely blind to all of the ATROCITIES in the world. And all of the things that are WRONG with them. All of the things that could go WRONG in their life.

Ella: Ugh, can you please leave?

Ellenore: Oh, so you can “chill”?? You’re a fucking MORON.

Ella: k.

Ellenore: I’m always giving you good advice, suggesting things to worry about when you’re stuck — giving you the inspiration you need when things are going well —

Ella: Yeah, but —

Ellenore: Helping you see a different perspective —

Ella: Well, you see, that’s the thing —

Ellenore: I’m so good to you, and all I get in return is “ugh”??!

Ella: You make my life pretty miserable is all.

Ellenore: Me?? I’m trying to stop you from becoming even MORE miserable.

Ella: Right.

Ellenore: Because things can ALWAYS be worse.

Ella: Sure, but I mean —

Ellenore: You can’t just stop and enjoy the little things. That’s dumb. Because the next thing you know —

Ella: God, I wish you would go away.

Ellenore: Why, Ella??? Why do you hate me so much??

Ella: It’s just, you’re like, the quintessential essence, the very prototype of that thing my dad calls The Female Brain™.

Ellenore: So???

Ella: So, uhhh, we’ve been trying to persuade men for thousands of years that women have brains, that we are rational beings – and we are – I am – but you’re always there – smothering me with your hysteria –

Ellenore: Sorry? I don’t see what the problem is here?

Ella: The problem is, I’m just trying to be the best version of myself, the smart, laid back version —

Ellenore: That’s so dumb. Listen  —

Ella: I’m just trying to –

Ellenore: WAIT. WAIT. You need to listen to me!

Ella: Look, no offence, but you’re completely out of your mind.

Ellenore: What??!

Ella: You’re hysterical.

Ellenore: I’m hysterical???? I’m just prompting you to consider all of the possibilities!

Ella: …

Ellenore: All of the horrible, horrible possibilities, that you, under regular circumstances, would never even notice

Ella: I just don’t think I need you in my life. I’d really be fine without you.

Ellenore: LOL.

Ella: I can think. I have a brain.

Ellenore: Okay, insane girl.

Ella: Okay?

Ellenore: Okay. Whatever.

Ella: …

Ellenore: …

Ella: …

Ellenore: …

Ella: Cool. I’m going for a run.

Ellenore: You can’t run away from me.

Ella: …

Ellenore: I’ll always be here.

Ella: …

Ellenore: I’ll never leave you.

Ella: k.

Ellenore: I love you.

Ella: I…can’t say the feeling’s mutual.

Ellenore: Here for you always, babe.

Ella: …

Ellenore: *blows kiss*

Fatal Detachment

I stood in the light with a thorn
behind my ear

tongue fat with the effort
of pronouncing
its name:

Marilyn
with her black eye
Jesus
with his knocking knees

Every mouth in the world
dogged their movements

Every man, woman, and child knows
their pain.

It makes a poignant tableau:

a pretty pixel
to roll distractedly
between your fingers.

I stood in the light
with a thorn behind my ear

watching
with thin fascination

and Salvation bloomed
on both their lips.