At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event. We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback. We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist. Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.
In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love. Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it. What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey. I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for. Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations. Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.
That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less. And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List. And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).
Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it. She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph. But this much I believe to be true: Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.
Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty. Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world. And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence. Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.
And what a stage it is. What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival. For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale. Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all. Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love. There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.
It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.
For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book. I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over. I am.
Buy it in hardback. Read it, but not too fast. Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.
A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.
Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times
Elizabeth Day in The Guardian