Regular readers may remember that I am a fairly recent Elizabeth Gilbert convert – her most famous/infamous book, Eat Pray Love, was one of the first books I reviewed for this blog. In the post, and in the subsequent post I wrote once I had finished (the first was a mid-read review), I wax lyrical about the author’s skill in the way that only someone who has had their opinions turned on their heads can… and I followed it up some months later by reading Big Magic at the beginning of this year, and waxing lyrical about that as well.
Safe to say, then, that I am a Gilbert fan. However, until now I had never read any of Gilbert’s fiction, having only focused on the non-fiction for which she is arguably most famous (unusual for me!). So when a friend lent me The Signature of All Things, I didn’t really know what to expect. I thought I would enjoy it – that seemed a fairly safe bet – but having loved so much the voice (the incredibly personal and candid voice) of Eat Pray Love and Big Magic, I wasn’t sure how I would find a book where that voice is disguised as a fictional character’s.
I needed have worried. I did love The Signature of All Things, and quite frankly, Gilbert’s personality is stamped through and through it like Brighton Rock, just as surely as in her other works.
The story is centred around Alma, a botanist living in Philadelphia around the turn of the eighteenth/nineteenth century. It’s actually something of an epic – having met Alma at the moment of her birth, we quickly move backwards to meet her father as a young boy, in order to re-join Alma having watched her father grow up, move from London to America, travel across the globe and make his fortune – only to then follow Alma as she grows up, too, and learns and writes and travels and loves and loses and gains.
More than investment in the characters and their lives, though, what I found beautiful about this book was the beautiful juxtaposition between the mystical and the concrete. Gilbert’s non-fiction is dripping in spirituality and philosophical questions – how interesting, then, that the central character of this novel is a scientist with a fiercely logical and rational outlook on life. In another’s hands, this could easily have been propaganda, I think – a clumsy cautionary tale in which Alma, the dry and blind rational scientist, has an inexplicable epiphany and realises the error of her ways to embrace mysticism whilst eschewing modern life and making a home on a small barely inhabited tropical island – but no, Gilbert is (of course) far too skillful a writer for that.
Instead, we have a layered, complex novel, in which Gilbert’s unique brand of humour and spirituality are clearly visible – but without losing the integrity of the story or characters. It was so interesting to think about these concepts through Alma’s rational viewpoint, and while enjoying a thoroughly good story to boot. Apart from anything else, The Signature of All Things is a gorgeous portrait of the world – sort of simultaneously a snapshot and an intricate oil painting of humanity and our relationship with the natural world.
Ok, I’m pretty sure that last sentence didn’t actually make sense, but it’s the best way I could think of to describe it. You’d better read it, and then you’ll see what I mean..!
If you already like Elizabeth Gilbert’s writing, you will like this. If Big Magic and Eat Pray Love were just a bit… much for you… then you will probably still like it, as it’s less overtly about spirituality and philosophy, and can absolutely just be read as an interesting story about a female scientist who lived when Darwin published On The Origin of Species.
Still a Gilbert fan!