The Signature of All Things (2014)
Riverhead Trade, 512 pp. ISBN: 9780143125846
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Elizabeth Gilbert is also the author of Eat, Pray, Love, a memoir of the author's full circle flight from marriage back to romance. It struck a resonant chord, I suppose, because there are so many women who feel as if they've been dealt raw deals in their relationships. Nonetheless, Eat, Pray, Love was chick-lit–a term I do not use lightly–at its worst: fantasy and exaggeration masquerading as power gift-wrapped in a mawkish box. (It was, though, way better than the 2011 Julia Roberts movie of the same name.)
I needed to say that because Gilbert's latest, The Signature of All Things, has been called a 19th century version of Eat, Pray, Love. It's not. First of all, it's a novel, not a memoir. Second, it's a very good book–good enough to make us thing of Ms. Gilbert as a serious writer, not more fodder for the Oxygen channel. It is also inventive, quirky, and unique. Name me another novel whose themes include the following: botany, the birth of science, female masturbation, spirituality, spiritualism, fellatio, altruism, rivalry, the struggle for existence, and moss. Yes, moss. And masturbation. And fellatio.
Gilbert's sprawling novel opens in the late 18th century when Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820) directed London's Kew Gardens. The imperious Banks built Kew into the world's premier botanic showcase, largely by collecting faster than he could inventory–perfect opportunity for a working-class lad, Henry Whittaker, to divert seeds to collectors and make some money. When his scheme comes apart, Whittaker boldly convinces Banks to employ him as a collector instead of sending him to the gallows. Henry didn't bargain on being sent to sea on Captain James Cook's third voyage (1776-79) or on being insulted when he returned to England with rare specimens.
Move the calendar and we find Henry has transplanted himself to Philadelphia in the new American republic, where his White Acres estate rivals Kew Gardens. Henry also has a bulging bank account; a sturdy and opinionated Dutch wife, Beatrix; a stern Dutch housekeeper, Hanneke du Groot; and a homely but brilliant daughter, Alma. The Whittaker household is a veritable salon in which visitors and family members debate the principles of science, a term that won't even be invented until 1830. Henry is hell-bent on collecting orchids that will enrich him beyond Banks' level, but Alma–who quickly outshines her tutors–gravitates to bryology, the study of mosses, a plant species whose presumed plainness matches her own. Barbara Kingsolver labeled the book "the botany of desire," but in many ways it's really about orchids (beautiful but fragile) and mosses (hardy survivors). Among the orchids are Alma's adopted sister, Prudence, a gadabout attractive neighbor, Rette Snow, and the pure Ambrose Pike, a clipped wings angel in temperament. Suffice it to say that anyone Dutch and/or born Whittaker is a species of moss.
The Whittaker world is rocked when Ambrose arrives at White Acres as Alma is about to turn 50 and marries her, though she is a decade older and is as blockish in body as he is perfect. What could he see in her? What indeed? It's not what Alma expected, nor what you will see coming. His presence sets loose a chain of events that will take Alma to Tahiti, where she will live among natives and missionaries, including the saintly Rev. Welles and his adopted Tahitian son, Tomorrow Morning, who is equal parts charismatic genius and rogue. Several pivotal things occur on Tahiti, one of which takes place in a mossy cave and is shocking.
The action will eventually shift to Amsterdam, where lots of loose threads come together, including Alma's "theory of competitive alternation," her musing on evolution that is roughly coetaneous with Darwin's theory of natural selection and Alfred Russel [sic] Wallace's musings on biological adaptation. Alma deflects Wallace's urging to publish her work because she cannot solve the "problem" of altruism. (Wallace has his own ideas on that subject, which Alma rejects as non-empirical.)
The Signature of All Things is indeed an odd book. Gilbert's story has more twists than a rope factory and she's a marvelous storyteller. It is a smart book, though not always a literary one. At times it can read like a botany lecture and readers should steel themselves for rather dramatic tone shifts. There are long sections that can be skimmed without losing the thread of the tale, and one feels that a stern editor could have pared the text by 15-20% to good effect. Still, the story is so original and (that word again!) odd, that you will feel richly rewarded when you've finished. And you'll never think about moss the same way again. As for the salacious bits, I'm not saying!