No great fan of Elizabeth Gilbert’s colossally popular memoir Eat, Pray, Love, I almost gave The Signature of All Things a pass. But I read a snippet of a review that described the new book as harking back to the novels of the nineteenth-century; perhaps it was worth a try?
I genuinely enjoyed this historical novel (one of my favorite genres), which is essentially the life story of Alma Whittaker. Born in 1800 into great wealth and unusual privilege, Alma is a woman of remarkable intelligence, curiosity, persistence, and—so that she is not only formidable but also appealing as the central character—very human shortcomings. Much about Alma is exceptional: her ability to learn, her isolation on her family’s Philadelphia estate, her commitment to science as well as her impressive height and her lack of good looks. I couldn’t help picturing Alma as a nineteenth-century incarnation of Elizabeth I, from her red hair to her egotism: admirable and exasperating, yet also understandable and sometimes likable.
Gilbert spins her tale in a conventional way: beginning before Alma’s birth with the story of her father’s rise from poverty through his adventures in botany, to her parents’ marriage, and then chronologically through Alma’s development and adulthood. This straightforward narrative approach seems to have freed Gilbert to write quite beautifully and engagingly about many things: the thirst for knowledge and the leading scientific ideas of the nineteenth century but also loneliness, sexuality, sea voyages, Tahiti, an ugly dog, and even mosses:
In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. The simplest weed sprouting from the humblest city sidewalk appeared infinitely more sophisticated by comparison. But here is what few people understood, and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stones; scarcely anything, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly and devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. . . . Under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will itself turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray—the traces of antediluvian moss settlements.
The title of the book derives from a treatise written in the sixteenth century by Jacob Boehme, who believed that “God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth,” that all the world was a “divine code . . . containing proof of the Creator’s love.” While Alma—a scientist living in the same era as Darwin—rejects such a fanciful view, she nevertheless hungers for modern answers about the “signature” of things: a way to understand how the natural world came to be: “All I ever wanted was to know this world.”
It was a pleasure to follow Alma’s quest in all its intellectual and emotional manifestations—even when some of them became a bit far-fetched—because Gilbert is such a good storyteller. While Alma grapples with creating a system that accounts for all life, she also perceives a great truth about life: “It was not always the most beautiful, brilliant, original, or graceful who survived the struggle for existence; sometimes it was the most ruthless, or the most lucky, or maybe just the most stubborn.”
Although there wasn’t a real Alma Whittaker, Elizabeth Gilbert has convinced me that there might have been. Beyond entertainment, the tale of Alma’s long life also deftly delivers a moral: that if we are graced with long years, we should be doing something with them that’s integral to who we are and to who we still—even at sixty, seventy, eighty—aspire to become.