Elizabeth Gilbert’s second novel, The Signature of All Things, is aesthetically dazzling and intellectually challenging. Through the story of 19th century botanist Alma Whittaker, it explores themes of sexuality, nature and suffering. It’s a tour de force that clings to the reader long after it has been finished.
Everyone knows about Elizabeth Gilbert’s phenomenally successful 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, whether you read books or not. What is perhaps less well known is that she actually started out as a writer of fiction. The Signature of All Things, her second novel, confirms her natural talent as a story teller. Her deep respect for Charles Dickens gives an explanation of her turn paging prose, fully developed characterisations and mesmerising set pieces.
The story is centred around the character of Alma Whittaker, daughter of arborist and trader Henry Whittaker. She is born into late 18th century American society, and the novel traces her uneventful yet at the same time quite extraordinary life. Her father and grandfather being specialists in botany, Alma also follows in their footsteps, and becomes a natural philosopher and scientist herself. Her speciality is the study of mosses, a study which leads her to write, but not publish, some very revolutionary research. She hangs back from scientific fame and finds solace in intellectual enquiry. Her personal life, by contrast, is uneventful and full of inner turmoil. She has an erotic life of self-discovery, but struggles to find a partner to express that eroticism with. Throughout her long life, there are many disappointments, often brought on by self-delusion and an inability to correctly see events and understand people and their motives. Life is a constant struggle to understand.
The best way to describe this novel is as an imaginative tour de force that constantly delights and astonishes. Gilbert does a lot of inventing, but her characters feel as though they are revealed rather than fabricated. Many of the novel’s dazzling inventions reminded me of flamboyant British director Ken Russell’s films, yet Gilbert tempers this with fully rounded, three dimensional characters. As readers we get to inhabit their body and mind, to experience their internal consciousness. The literary influence of Dickens has been mentioned above, but I would hazard a guess and say that Gilbert has also been heavily influence by D. H. Lawrence and George Eliot. There is much Lawrentian sexuality in The Signature of All Things, and Alma Whittaker herself, with her ungainly, broad figure and capacious intelligence, brings to mind that towering figure of the 19th century novel, George Eliot.
I’ve never read Eat, Pray, Love, so becoming a fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing has come as a complete surprise to me. This is a sweeping, philosophical novel about women, sexuality, nature and the constant trials of life told by a storyteller with the magic touch. Many of Gilbert’s descriptions and metaphors cut through with their power and resonance. The Signature of All Things is a deeply absorbing novel that is a complete intellectual, emotional and aesthetic experience to read.
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408850114 RRP: $29.99