Friday, December 13, 2013

The Signature of All Things

I scarcely know where to begin in praise of this great, hefty, wonderful novel! Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, has simply outdone herself with this unusual, expansive, mature book that actually seems to defy categorizing. And that's a good thing. I would hate to keep someone away from the pleasure of this book by calling it an "historical," though it is, a "love story," but it is, or even a lesson in botany, yet you'll learn so much.


This engrossing tale begins in Kew Gardens, in England, where a clever young lad tries to outsmart his boss in a get-rich-quick scheme that lands him on a ship bound for the South Seas, a fate much preferable to hanging. Young Henry Whittaker soaks up everything he can learn about the natural world. Earning a vast fortune in quinine, he rehabilitates himself as a gentleman, acquires a sensible wife raised on the classics, and heads for the new world.

In Philadelphia readers will meet my new literary heroine, Henry's daughter Alma Whittaker, a formidable presence whose intellectual curiosity and passion for learning more than compensate for her ungainly size and plain countenance. Not content to play the spoiled ingénue, Alma devotes herself to the study of plants. Owing to the entrée afforded her by her father's reputation, she corresponds with botanists from academies around the world, writing scholarly essays published by a family friend with whom she believes she is deeply in love.

Sharing this confidence with her sister Prudence proves disastrous. Foiled in love, Alma throws herself further into her life's work, the study of moss. I know, I can't imagine telling you readers anything drier but please, if you read this blog often, trust me. Elizabeth Gilbert, through three years of research and fabulously imaginative wordsmithing, creates a sensuous world of teeming microorganisms that leave one almost breathless.

I dare not say too much. An outline of the plot will not do. You simply must jump in and be overwhelmed, surprised, and pleased as the resilient Alma, estranged from her sister, whose abolitionist fervor has made her persona non grata at the family estate, tempered by disappointment in love, explores the meaning of life through nature, logic, and scientific principle.

You will follow Alma to Tahiti on a quest to understand the true nature of the orchid artist Ambrose Pike and share in her heart wrenching search for sexual fulfillment. You will sail to Holland and be privy to the papers of Darwin and other great minds of science. You will participate in learned conversations pitting the spirit against the intellect. You may even believe that you see the hand of God in The Signature of All Things.

No comments: