Book review: THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things: a novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, Viking ©2013

Writer Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love. Suspicious of bestsellers, I avoided the book for a long time but I read it because my brother bought a 10th-anniversary edition of the book. Now I understand why it was such a hit! In her travels through Italy, India, and Indonesia, she tells about her struggles with a marriage that ended, and finding joy and enlightenment in the pleasures of Italy, living in an ashram in India, and ending the journey in Indonesia.

Her book Big Magic is my favorite book on creativity and inspiration. It taught me that we should enjoy our creativity, its our God-given right, and rebel against the notion of suffering artists. It encourages us to create and engage in inspiration. There is magic in creativity, and I love the idea that ideas are also alive and are seeking the best willing collaborators. I recommend it to writers, artists, and everyday people who dream of becoming artists but are blocked by their own beliefs that they can't create. She wrote about how a time of writer's block led her to plant a garden, and her research about her own plants and flowers led her to the idea for this novel.

So when I found this book in a grand-aunt's library (the sister of my deceased grandmother), I read it and found a fascinating story about botanical explorers. Set in the 1800s, the book starts with a poor Henry Whittaker stealing precious plants from the real-life Sir Joseph Banks in Kew Gardens, London. Instead of being convicted as a thief, Banks employs Henry to collect botanical examples for him. Shrewd, resourceful, and smart, Henry does his best in order to return to London as a distinguished gentleman like Banks. When Banks insulted him after years of service, Henry swore to build his own botanical empire and moved to Philadelphia in the United States.

Henry has a daughter, Alma Whittaker, who was born into a wealthy and educated family who encourages her intellectual growth. Alma is a born explorer and scientist, growing up in their great estate called White Acres. Notable people of the century are invited into Henry Whittaker's home, and Alma grew up with lavish dinners and energetic exchanges of ideas with the great men and women of their time. Alma finds her scientific passion in the study of mosses and becomes a big name in botany herself.

Alma focuses all her time on research that she had no time to find love. She would have been contented with a lifetime of being single until one day (as most stories go), she unexpectedly falls in love. She discovers an artist who draws beautiful plants and orchids as if they grow off paper, and the man, Ambrose, is invited in White Acres. A bit of a spiritual bohemian, Alma finds someone who lives in the realm of the magical and the spiritual, challenging Alma's beliefs of the logical natural world.

Their marriage ends in an unconsummated tragedy due to Ambrose's weird beliefs. Ambrose is sent to Tahiti to attend to family business. Something unexpected happens, and Alma is led to Tahiti to find answers. For the first time, she is thrown into a new environment so different from her home. She meets natives and missionaries, wild children and animals who help her along the way.

The book is a fine example of historical fiction, capturing the language and sense of wonder of that time. It reads like a travelogue through England, Philadelphia, Tahiti, and Holland, places where Alma spends her life. The novel is the biography of Alma Whittaker, a fictional scientist whose life rings true for us readers. From her birth to her death, it was surely a fulfilled life filled with adventure! Though, like every life, she also had her share of pain and disappointment.

I would like to write more of the amazing characters: Beatrix, Alma's no-nonsense mother; Prudence, her virtuous adopted sister; Retta Snow, her one childhood best friend who reminds me of the Cheshire cat; Hanneke, the Whittaker household manager; Reverend Welles, an English missionary in Tahiti; Roger, the poor dog she meets in Tahiti who finds his real home in Holland... they feel so much like real people you'd love to meet!

The book ends with the controversial Charles Darwin, at the time when Origin of the Species was just released and widely debated over. Alma meets Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin's friend, and the last pages of the book detail their lively conversation about evolution and science. It was a convincing braiding of fiction with real people. I really appreciate the research done to write a book of this scale.

We may not have time machines to travel back to the past but I'm grateful that we have imaginative minds like this that we readers can just read and actually travel through time just by reading words! Again, like the author's other books I've read, I finished reading the book with a sense of awe and wonder, a feeling of transcendence and inspiration. Finishing this book, I felt an appreciation for the natural world - the trees, flowers, and plants around us that also have stories of their own.

"In all of our lives, there are days that we wish to expunge from the record of our existence. Perhaps we long for that erasure because that day brought us such splintering sorrow that we can scarcely bear to think of it ever again. Or we might want to blot out an episode forever because we behaved so poorly that day - so selfish or foolish. Or maybe we injured a person and wish to disremember out guilt. Tragically, there are some days when all three of those things happen at once - when we are heartbroken and foolish and unforgivably injurious to others, all at the same time."

"Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library, she was a library."

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