Book Review: 'THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS', by Elizabeth Gilbert. 07/11/2014
In her first book, 'Eat, Pray, Love', the author chronicles her journey across the world and what she discovers during her travels. In this, her latest novel, it is her characters that do the travelling. The book narrates the life, trials and tribulations of botanical explorer Alma Whittaker, and of her father Henry before her. At 582 pages, and with a small type font, it is an ambitious, epic story, a real tour-de-force.
We previously encountered naturalists/bryologists/botanists as lead characters, coupled with journeys on the high seas, in the 'Aubrey-Maturin' series of historical novels by Patrick O'Brien, adapted into the 2003 film 'Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World'. We encounter the same in this book, although the emphasis here is more on methodological naturalism than on naval travel. The lead character, Alma Whittaker, is an enlightenment-age woman, immersed in scientific exploration in the century leading up to Darwin’s theory of evolution. The story begins by summarising the exploits of her father, Henry Whittaker, thief turned botanist, who rises up to become of the three richest men in Philadelphia. It then follows Alma's journey from her birth right up to her life as an 84-year-old (in the year after Darwin's death). With her intellectual knowledge increasing, she simultaneously struggles to grasp the irrationality of other people's behaviour, something which cannot be understood and ordered like specimens under a microscope slide could be. But the more she questions and the more she explores, the more she is made to realize how little she knows about her own world and her own self.
The book is extensively researched, and compellingly readable, but even at it's great length, the author appeared to have much more to say. Often she employs the method of describing an extensive period of time by summarising in quick, short sentences, producing a list of events, e.g. "He bought the hide of a wolf. He collected primroses... He saw Indians who lived in holes in the ground. He ate salted pork studded with maggots. He lost another tooth. He arrived at Bering Straits ...". This is a perfectly justifiable narrative approach. However, on occasions, aspects of the writing did require fleshing out. The supporting characters, for example, are not always fabricated with absolute precision, their role in the story seeming to be just that, to support. The focus abruptly shifted away from the characters Prudence and Retta just as their role in the narrative became both more significant and intriguing. And ironically, the brief recount of Henry Whittaker's life alluded to a more interesting read than that of Alma's.
Additionally, there exists several contradictions in the book as the story goes on, both with the way the characters behave, and the scenarios illustrated. For example, the lead character Alma Whittaker is shown from a young age to possess obsessive scientific curiosity, to question everything, and to not rest until answers presented themselves. She would often infuriate her parents with her persistent questioning, and later in life she would regularly make apologies for this behaviour trait. However, she spends hardly any time at all questioning, let alone investigating, the profound 'supernatural' experience she shares with her husband-to-be. It is also a possible flaw of the story that the author touches upon this concept but fails to elaborate or explain it, not even by the story's conclusion. Another example is with the character, Tamatoa Mare, who renounced paganism for Christianity, who became a Christian Minister, and who is now married with children. Yet, he engages in sexual relations with the ex-wife of the man that he had an affair with previously. And he (nor the author) does not question it in the slightest. Not very Christian. And we'll not comment much on how conveniently that particular scene plays out (entering by canoe through a waterfall, the male and female in question eventually end up in a cave. Their clothes are wet, so they completely strip down (naturally), which precludes the aforementioned intimacy. However, they are strangers, who only spoke to each other for the first time that very evening. And on meeting, and up to that point, there was no indication that they were attracted to each other or that this could happen. And why completely strip down? They are in Tahiti, of all places, one would think the hot weather would have them dried very quickly).
Nevertheless, this book is a big deal, epic in scope and execution. Just the sheer effort of putting this story together deserves an extra mark. And after the runaway success of 'Eat, Pray, Love', this is sure to occupy the bestseller lists for some time to come.