on November 24, 2013
When I see a book about a female botanist in the nineteenth century, I expect one of two storylines: either "woman fights sexism to pursue her dreams" or "unconventional woman finds fulfillment in romance"--or both. This book flirts with both narratives but settles down with neither, and is better for it.
The Signature of All Things is a big, ambitious book, beginning with the world-spanning exploits of one Henry Whittaker, thief turned botanist, in the late 1700s, before moving on to his daughter Alma about 50 pages in. Alma grows up fantastically wealthy and encouraged to follow scientific pursuits, falls in love with a local publisher, and you think you know where this is going.... but then, well, it doesn't go that way, and a third of the way through the book she's 48 years old, and then the real story begins.
One of the difficulties with this novel is that there's no real driving plot--or rather, Alma's life is the plot, though there are some significant time-skips--but it consistently defied my expectations and kept my interest. It's a book about the Enlightenment, with a lot of research and discovery and expanding of horizons, and I came away impressed with Gilbert's respect for science. Alma is someone whose intellectual life is as important to her (perhaps more so) than her emotional life, and most authors would have a hard time writing about that sort of character in a positive and believable way--which makes sense; writing a good novel almost always requires an author to be intensely interested in feelings. But Gilbert balances the science and emotion well, and even has me looking at mosses (Alma's specialty) with new eyes. Her writing style itself draws the reader in, energetic and engaging and far more polished than I expected from someone best known for a mega-bestselling mid-life-crisis memoir (judge me all you like for that).
But too often in this 499-page book I felt Gilbert was perhaps getting carried away with her writing. Whole sections go on far longer than necessary (the Tahiti episode, for instance); at least 50 pages could have been cut without harming the story. Worse, the book feels weighted more toward narrative summary than scenes, which means we're being told a lot about the characters and their activities rather than being in the story with them watching events unfold. I've noticed this problem in a number of recent novels, and I don't know whether it originates with authorial lack of confidence or just the desire to cram in everything about a character's life, but it results in a less engaging and memorable story. When Gilbert gets into the scenes, it's excellent: the solar system dance tells us more about Alma's childhood than all the summary preceding it, and lingers far longer in the reader's mind besides.
The biggest problem with all the summarizing is that it distances the reader from the characters. Alma is well-developed and believable, and I enjoyed her story, but my investment came more from curiosity to know what would happen next than any emotional connection to her (and for all the science, this is still a novel, so emotional connections are to be desired). The secondary characters are colorful and often intriguing, but suffer from being described more than shown. Prudence, in particular, is potentially fascinating but gets too little page time, leaving her relationship with Alma not quite believable (they grow up together from the age of 10, without access to other children, and maintain a polite distance the entire time?). Ambrose works because we see his relationship with Alma develop as she experiences it. Retta is bizarre--in fact, all Gilbert's women have extreme personalities of one sort or another, and by the time Retta was introduced my suspension of disbelief was breaking. Henry is a mess of contradictions not really explained by the 50 pages spent on his backstory, though beginning with his adventures rather than Alma's childhood was an astute choice. For the most part I believed in these people, but by zooming out too often Gilbert kept me from truly knowing them.
Overall, then, I found this a worthy novel but not a great one, though it has great potential that a firmer editor might have captured. Not having read Gilbert before, I found it a pleasant surprise and an enjoyable read, and admire its bold choices. I just wish it had been a bit more focused.
on October 1, 2013
This was my first time reading Elizabeth Gilbert--I'm one of the six people in the universe who didn't read "Eat, Pray, Love"--and I'm glad I didn't approach this novel with any preconceived ideas. I'm sure it's nothing like her previous bestseller, but if that book can propel this book high on the lists that would be great. "The Signature of All Things" is a lovely novel, beautifully written with great scope and rich characters.
The novel is full of small delights of writing. Money, Gilbert writes, follows Alma's father around "like a small, excited dog." The nineteenth century enchantment with science and the natural world is expressed fully and with the sense of wonder Alma and her family felt. Alma is educated in the 19th century way by her autodidact botanist father Henry and her classically educated Dutch mother, who want her to be able to understand the world on many levels. She does, and she doesn't.
Where the novel falters is in the secondary characters, notably Alma's adopted sister Prudence and their friend, Retta. Both characters are meant to offer contrasts to Alma's cerebral, carnal aspects, but as people they are not believable, nor are their marriages. The novel becomes a little unmoored--as does Alma--once she leaves White Acres for the greater world. These are strange false steps in an otherwise assured work.
But you know what? Who cares! It might take a little suspension of disbelief in the last third or so of "The Signature of all Things" but each page is still a pleasure and otherwise it might just be too perfect. May this quality novel have the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's other books. It would be nice to see it at the top of the NYT bestseller list.
on October 1, 2013
Let me start by saying that I have indeed read "Eat, Pray, Love". Yep, that's the camp I belong to. Also, I totally loved it. Yep, that's the sub-camp I belong to.
Though I am not much into fiction, I was mildly curious to find out how Ms. Gilbert would walk out of memoir mode and segway into the world of fiction (not sure if this is her first fiction but it's the only one I have picked up).
Would she be able to enrapture, intrigue and delight us with a tale borne out of her imagination, as she had with her own true story in "Eat, Pray and Love"?
Well, the answer is a resounding yes!
And by golly, does she have a tale to tell.
Set in the 18th -19th century, the story revolves around Alma, the daughter of the very wealthy Henry Whittaker. From her father, Alma has inherited a penchant for plants. She spends most of her waking hours trying to make sense of the botanical world around her, perhaps in an attempt to understand her own existence. But through the course of her life, she is made to realize how little she knows about her own world, her own self.
The story has been skillfully woven into a rich tapestry of adventure, emotions and science. Something also needs to be said about the amount of research that must have gone in; the book is peppered with facts that have been laid out in a manner almost poetic.
"Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o'clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o'clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened. When the clock struck seven, the dandelions would bloom. At eight o'clock, it was the scarlet pimpernel's turn...."
Facts infused with poetry or perhaps poetry infused with facts? Either way, you will be charmed!
"The Signature of All Things" is right up there with "Eat, Pray, Love".But the fact that the book has been written by the Italian food eating, spirituality seeking, meditating, globetrotting Ms. Gilbert, you know the persona that I (we?) have come to associate with the author, has taken a backseat.
As it should have.
Now that's versatility!
on March 4, 2014
I think I am the only person on the planet who did not like Eat, Love, Pray. In fact, not only did I not like it, I actually kind of hated it. Therefore, when a member of our reading group suggested we read The Signature of All Things by the same author, I resisted the suggestion with all my might and charm. Alas, I lost the battle (my charm ain't what it used to be).
This is why I was surprised down to my socks when I gobbled the first 300 pages of this book down like a giant bucket of popcorn at the movies. I couldn't believe this book had been penned by the same author as Eat, Love, Pray. The writing was robust, the characters were compelling, the storyline riveting and most of all, there was a historical and educational richness that made you feel like you were getting smarter and smarter with every page you turned. In this way, Gilbert's novel reminded me of the historical fiction by authors James Michener and Leon Uris. I had even started imagining my critique to my reading group that would include such accolades as "one of my favorite books of all time."
Not so fast. Around page 300 I hit the skids with this book and hit them big. The reading went from sailing through chapter after chapter with the wind at my back on a sea of glass, to slogging my way through each page as if I were hip deep in a muddy bog with three bags of groceries in my arms. My sense is that Gilbert ran out of steam. In some ways, the story deflated slowly, as with the fortunes and foibles of some of the main characters, but mostly, there was a sudden shift in tone, storyline, and even the style of writing. I swear it seemed like a different person took over the writing of the last 200 pages. The longer that this workman-like writing and irksome plot continued, the angrier I got that the author had taken me to the celestial heights of reading pleasure, only to drop me to the dark depths of reading despair. Okay, that was a little dramatic, but you get my point. I wish Ms. Gilbert's editors had applied as firm a hand to the end of the book, as they did at the beginning.
Now, once and for all, I am done with Elizabeth Gilbert (unless, of course, she shows up on my doorstep and politely asks me to read her next book and then I certainly will.) :-)
Final note: almost everyone else in my reading group felt the same way I did. There were a couple of people who didn't like the book from the start, but for those who did, their feelings had changed drastically by the end.
on November 3, 2013
Recently I have made use of what I learned decades ago, back when people were in awe of then-President John F. Kennedy's skills as a very rapid reader. In college we were offered "speed reading" classes. And recently I have found that those skills are easily recaptured. This book is so overly written, in marked contrast, for example, to the power of Alice McDermott's latest, "Someone."
I had read the reader reviews here and now wish I had paid more attention to the ones with one and two stars. The central character, Alma, has lived a rather secluded life, the only child (well, except for the one adopted by her parents, a child that maybe her father sired of the prostitute who bore Prudence) of a very wealthy Henry Whittaker who has established a large estate in Philadelphia and has accumulated much wealth. Alma is fascinated by flora and become a botanist who publishes. Her specialty becomes mosses. There is a large indoor botanical garden on White Acres (belonging to the "Whittakers"!) patterned after the one George III had created for his enjoyment back in England where Henry was born.
Along comes Ambrose with his orchid lithographs, and the plot thickens. But I won't be a spoiler except to say that it seems that every novelist and short story writer cannot resist putting homosexuals in their works. (Don't panic! I'm not a homophobe! I actually am a homosexual who believes that sometimes these situations are now contrived to meet the increased public support for those of us who are gay.)
This book needed a heavy hand at editing it, to use the language of a botanist, a "pruning." A big pruning. There are factual errors. For example, on page 223 (there are 499 of them, and thankfully not 500!) the author has a palm tree "cut back." It was growing too tall in the enclosure. I live in Miami Beach, and anyone knows that when palm trees are "topped" they die. Then there is 48-year-old Prudence, married for 30 years but with a swarm of small children. Where was the editor of this novel? Then there's a contradiction between a document Henry had Alma sign (this relates to Ambrose). But when he dies--how thankful I was when the author finally killed him off at 91--that document and his will are at odds. And there are plenty more problems like that.
So if you like a thick book that looks nice--and this one does--and you can practice you skimming skills, then I recommend this one. But if you want a well-written book, then look elsewhere.
on October 21, 2013
I wrote a brief but scathing review of Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love so when The Signature of All Things arrived unsolicited I wasn't enthusiastic. When it finally reached the top of my review stack, I was willing to attempt it but I was fully expecting I would put it aside after a few chapters. However, to my surprise, I found The Signature Of All Things fascinating reading and was reluctant to put it down.
Unfolding over a century from the late 1700's, The Signature of All Things is a fictional portrait of a remarkable woman and her extraordinary life. Alma Whittaker was born in 1800, the only surviving child of an austere Dutch mother and a father defined by his ambition and entrepreneurial talents. Blessed with rare intelligence, Henry and Beatrix 'encouraged a spirit of investigation in their daughter', and with the family seat of White Acre in Philadelphia offering endless opportunity for education, eventually developed a passion for the study of botany.
While The Signature of All Things follows Alma's path of scientific exploration and curiosity, leading to a specific interest in Bryology (mosses) it also examines themes of family, love, philosophy, faith and loss. Alma's life's journey is absorbing in both its ordinary and extraordinary unraveling. She is challenged by her parent's adoption of a sister, Prudence, a friendship with the mercurial Retta, dashed romantic dreams, and the deaths of her parents. She struggles to understand her emotional and sexual desires and to resolve her shortcomings, to find personal fulfillment and finally to define her worth to the world at large.
The writing of The Signature of All Things is lovely, with the tempo and elegance of the historical period. Gilbert's research is impressive, I don't have a green thumb at all but even so I was fascinated by the botanical information imparted during the story. My interest really only wavered during the time Alma spent in Tahiti, thankfully a brief interlude in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted novel.
Intriguing, thought provoking and moving, The Signature of All Things is a compelling novel of historical fiction. I recommend you forgive Gilbert the conceit of Eat, Pray, Love and pick this up.
From the opening pages, it is evident that Gilbert can write with lyricism, confidence, and substance. I was afraid that her mass popularity would lead to a dumbed down book with pandering social/political agendas or telegraphed notions. I am thrilled to conclude that this was not the case. Gilbert is a superb writer who allows her main characters to spring forth as organically as the natural world that they live in. This is a book of well-considered people of the times, who are emblematic of daring and discerning ideas, as well as an absorbing story that will keep the pages flying. The 18th and 19th century comes to life, and botany keeps the composite parts anchored to the earth. It is a both beautiful and intermittently appalling story of humanity and nature.
The book begins with British ex-pat Henry Whittaker, a boy of humble origins, who, by the time he is an adult in the 19th century, turns himself into a captain of industry in the botanical and pharmaceutical industry, particularly quinine. As a boy, he pilfered from the Royal Botanical Kew Gardens and sold to others, and showed his mettle as an entrepreneur. The director, Sir Joseph Banks, eventually apprehended him. Whittaker's penance was to be sent on faraway travels, in order to prove himself worthy and edify himself in the realm of plants.
When Whittaker returned, he made it his life's work to eclipse Banks and become a wealthy self-made industrialist of the natural world. He got himself an educated Dutch wife, left Europe for good, and settled in Western Pennsylvania, where he built an elaborate estate that truly did rival the Kew Gardens, called White Acre. All alike envied his ostentatious mansion on the hill, and were impressed by his breathtaking, unparalleled gardens. He sired one daughter, Alma, and adopted another, Prudence. Whittaker became one of the richest men in North America, or anywhere. But, more important than riches, to him, was the power to command others, and the talent and skill to master your work. Education was the tool to that end. Therefore, his children received a scholarly education at home.
Henry's prominence on the pages segues into his daughter's, Alma. The beautiful Prudence becomes an outspoken abolitionist, while Alma grows into a scholarly, tall, large-boned, homely, and privately carnal woman who becomes the flourishing main character. I would list her as one of my favorite protagonists of contemporary times, as unforgettable as Teresita Urrea of THE HUMMINGBIRD'S DAUGHTER, although of polar sensibilities. Alma is so fleshed out that I can smell her, and every moment in her life is organically rendered. As she becomes her father's daughter as a scientist, (but with a gentler disposition), the reader is taken ever further into her inner and outer journeys. She is not just a botanist and taxonomist, but in many ways, a philosopher, a noble thinker, with a sexual and sensual hunger.
Gilbert doesn't portray Alma as flawless or unbelievable. Rather, Alma is a construct of her environment and her gifted mind. She is also metaphorically imprisoned by the life of a proper woman in the 19th century. However...
Alma's portrait is the fruit of this elegantly written, lyrically cadenced, engrossing tale. Gilbert braids in the enigma of life from botany to the human body, and folds in science, mysticism, spirituality, psycho-sexuality, all in a vibrantly flowing historical novel. Some of the characters make a brief or lucid appearance, and then fade, but Alma grows more luminous with each passing chapter. A few sections focus on scientific philosophies and the question of creationism and evolution (the way a discussion would happen in the 1800's), but it fits radiantly into this story. But, mostly, it is Alma who pollinates this ripe and exhilarating tale. I still see her bending over a leaf, or examining moss with a microscope, or hunched over her scholarly tomes and writing her books on the mysteries of plant life. Being at her father's beck and call, but carving out a solitary but teeming life.
The title of the book refers that all life contains a divine code or print, and was put forth by a 16th century German cobbler and early botanist, Jacob Boehme, one rejected by the Whittakers, for the most part, as medieval nonsense. He had mystical visions about plants, and believed there was a divine code in "every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code."
You can see it in a curling leaf, a nesting bird, and when the stamens of one plant stick it to its receptacle. Every unique living creature, according to Boehme, contains the eponymous title. Alma meets an orchid painter who embodies this belief, and who pulls her into the world of mysticism. As an explorer and thinker, she is compelled to understand this notion.
Alma's professional and personal life leads her to contemplate the "struggle for existence." As the reader follows Alma on her odyssey of the natural world and beyond, the wonder of life becomes ever transcendent--that "those who survived the world shaped it--even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them."
This exquisite novel feels like a gift to humanity. It has heart, soul, and earthiness. And Alma Whittaker.
on October 1, 2013
In her soaring new novel, The Signature of All Things, Liz takes us on her epic journey through the world of Alma, a pioneering woman unlike any you have ever met. What I loved most about this book is the richness of the characters, their lives, learning some unusual new words and discovering a world I never even thought about before -- moss! This book drew me in to the very last page and I was sorry to see it end. This is a book of genius, originality, beauty and grace.
on November 21, 2013
I have mixed feelings about this book. I love historical fiction. I also really enjoyed the subject of botany. A subject that I didn't pay enough attention to while in school, but fascinates me now because I'm older, wiser and I do see God's signature in each living thing. Also, I nearly fell off my reading chair when the subject of mosses came up...I mean other than a bryologist, I thought I was the only person to see a whole tiny universe inside a beautiful patch of moss! lol
As for the characters...well...not one of them is lovable. I wanted to love Alma, I really did, but I could not and this leads me to my beef with this book.....
Why do authors feel they have to include sex to sell a book!?! If the subject is interesting enough and the characters are likable...you really, really don't have to "sex it up." I understood Alma exploring her "quim" once, but the repeated reference to it was unnecessary (plus, I hate the word "quim"). I found myself saying, "not the binding closet again!" I am not even close to being a prude, but this subplot throughout the whole book was so unnecessary and subtracted from a five-star rating for me. As "they" say, "sex sells", but I could have done without it in this otherwise well written, albeit long, historical fiction novel.
on October 20, 2013
I'd read "Eat, Pray, Love" and enjoyed Ms. Gilbert's writing. The beginning of the book was wonderful, but as I passed the midpoint I couldn't help thinking the story would have benefited from some stern editing. It's like watching a four hour movie that you know would have worked better at ninety minutes. By the time I finally reached the ending of this book, I felt like I was overgrown with moss like one of Alma's beloved boulders. As I said, I wanted to like it...