Popular culture has made it very easy for us to approach certain authors believing we know everything about them. In the case of Elizabeth Gilbert, her popular memoirs have given path to endless social media posts, inspirational quote memes, TED Talks, and even a major motion picture starring the now-reclusive actress, Julia Roberts, who took a break from her semi-retirement to play the famous author. Gilbert’s literature is thought by many to be nothing but “first world problems” syndrome, in which she complains about how her seemingly perfect life is nothing but imperfect. While the accusations may be valid to a certain degree, those who look closer will be surprised, possibly shocked, even, to realize that Gilbert is nothing if not a thoughtful seeker of truths.
In The Signature of All Things she removes herself from the equation, delivering her first work of fiction in over 13 years and she turns in a wondrous, epic beast of a novel that spans across generations, continents and even planes of existence. “Alma Whittaker, born with the century slid into our world, on the fifth of January, 1800” begins the book, before the writer conceding that despite all the Dickensian novelty of describing early childhood, Alma’s life had been uneventful, rather dull even, until the time she turned five.
At this point, Gilbert takes one of the book’s many charming turns and goes back in time to tell us how Alma’s father Henry and her mother Beatrix first met. This tale within itself turns yet again into a literary Russian doll as we discover Henry’s adventures as a poor explorer trying to find wealth and how through illegal activities he became one of the most powerful men in Europe, before migrating to America with his new Dutch wife.
If the story seems interesting if not entirely original, Gilbert makes it so by making the Whittakers a family of botanists. Henry made his fortune stealing rare seeds and plants from his wealthy Lord and in one of the book’s many quirky touches, we learn how, before leaving the Netherlands for the very last time, Beatrix took it upon herself to sew rare tulip seeds within the hems of her skirt.
Once the story catches up with Alma as a toddler we learn of the many prominent guests that made appearances during her childhood and Gilbert crafts these scenes with the accurate way in which a child would’ve seen the world.There is a lovely little scene in which a famous astronomer has Henry’s guests reenact the way in which the solar system moves, giving little Alma the part of a wandering comet. One can almost smell the grass and hear the crackling of the fire in what turns to be one of the most cinematic moments in this novel.
The story then focuses completely on Alma as she grows from being a self centered young woman into becoming an expert botanist who specializes in the growth of mosses. Gilbert researched 18th century botany literature and of course, Charles Darwin’s theories, in order to deliver a novel that’s as full of scientific tidbits as it’s personal and intimate. She puts special emphasis in detailing how Alma in particular, found in mosses a sort of kindred natural spirit. She details how mosses grow slowly, almost invisibly in the process announcing Alma’s own personal evolution.
At the center of the story there is also Alma’s self discovery as a sexual being. Accepting the fact that she would probably never entice a man to marry her because of her broad shoulders and lack of beauty, Alma becomes obsessed with masturbation and craves nothing more than to be touched by a man. This kind of explicit sexual self awareness is fascinating because it doesn’t occur much in novels about this era—at least not in novels that aren’t harlequin romances that use cheesy similes to compare organs and emotions. That Gilbert so generously allows Alma this opportunity to please herself reveals a lot about the author’s particular kind of feminism.
A story has it that as a young woman, Gilbert received a present from her parents: a book of Captain Cook’s voyages which she had signed decades earlier as a child. This gift sparked Gilbert’s interest in women scientists and how they’ve been buried by what has always been thought of a world best reserved for men. A large part of The Signature of All Things is devoted to the heartbreaking notion that Alma was indeed a brilliant botanist who reached the same conclusions as other scientists of her era, but feared her voice would never be taken seriously enough to warrant the publication of her studies.
Even if Alma is a fictitious character, her story is one that must still be shared by others who live in fear of not being “good enough”. Gilbert cleverly weaves this empowering lesson in a novel that also deals with unfulfilled romance and the eternal battle between the heart and reason. Those willing to give themselves to The Signature of All Things without preconceptions will come out of the journey feeling as if they, too, have discovered one of life’s biggest treasures.