“But it needles me, Ambrose—the errors in these books. I wonder why the errors do not needle you. Boehme makes such leaps, such contradictions, such confusions of thought. It is as though he wishes to vault directly into heaven upon the strength of his logic, but his logic is deeply impaired.”
Born in Philadelphia at the dawn 19th century, Alma Whittaker has an unusual pedigree, and an even more unusual life. Her father is Henry Whittaker, the ambitious son of a humble orchardist at Kew Gardens. After making his fortune cultivating Jesuit bark in India, he finds a stolid Dutch wife, builds a magnificent estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia, and settles down to run a botanical pharmaceutical company of vast proportions. His wife, Beatrix, is a no-nonsense woman from a respectable Dutch family that has run the Hortus Botanical Gardens in Amsterdam for generations. Alma spends the days of her childhood receiving a classical education more commonly given to boys than girls, and her free time studying the flora of White Acre estate. Her evenings are spent at the family dinner table, where she is expected to converse and debate with the guests, who range from scientists to businessmen. Alma grows up to be an exacting scientist, and a patient student of the simplest of plants, particularly moss. Though her adopted sister, Prudence, marries and leaves home, Alma finds herself kept at White Acre by her plain appearance, her lack of feminine whiles, and her father’s desire for her company and assistance. Alma seems set to live out her life as a spinster-scholar, when Ambrose Pike, a lithographic artist of orchids, arrives on the scene. The aftermath of their bizarre and improbable relationship casts Alma out of the sheltered cocoon of White Acre, and sends her halfway around the world to Tahiti in search of answers.
In the beginning, and occasionally throughout the story, Elizabeth Gilbert attempts to mimic the observational narrative style of the period, but the book succeeds best when she leaves this contrivance behind, and descends into the narrative, letting the setting and the subject matter rather than the language provide period flavour. With the deft combination of research and hindsight, Gilbert is able to place Alma on the cutting edge of science, conversant in all the ideas and trends of her day without stretching credulity too far. Alma is no inexplicable prodigy, but the child of unusual parents. It is their peculiar social circle that enables her to connect with George Hawkes, a publisher of botanical essays who admires her work and is unconcerned with her gender, so that she is soon publishing as A. Whittaker. She achieves modest success and respect on her own merits, but no great renown. Gilbert slips Alma into the cracks of history, as if she might actually have existed, but gone largely unnoticed.
For all her deep logic and scientific training, Alma is attracted to flighty people, pulled so close into their orbits that she cannot see their faults until it is too late. Her best friend, excitable, half-mad Retta Snow, and her suitor Ambrose Pike, seemingly a respectable botanist and student of orchids, both enchant her with their flights of fancy. Even late in her life, she is fascinated with Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin who swings between legitimate scientific investigations and paranormal fantasies with equal fervour. These characters spend relatively little time in the story given their outsize influence on Alma, particularly in the case of Ambrose, who is there and gone almost immediately, but echoes through the remainder of the book. Indeed, aside from Alma, only Henry receives significant exploration, dominating the first hundred pages of the book, but receding thereafter. As a character, he merits a book in his own right, but this is not his story. I was reluctant to leave him behind so soon to delve into Alma’s life. The context his story provides is important, but it makes the narrative top-heavy.
Despite being drawn to grandiose characters, Alma is defined by her dedication to logic and reason. A plain and intellectual female character is not so unusual a construct, but Gilbert defies the stereotype because she does not elide Alma’s sexuality. Indeed, it is a primary part of her character that circumstances make it difficult for her to fulfill; she is physically unattractive, and knows how to engage with men intellectually but not socially, a problem that is only compounded by age. Unfortunately, despite accepting her own sexual desires, Alma isn’t much of a sexual revolutionary, and the trajectory of her sexual journey leads to a supposed fulfillment many readers will find wanting. Alma’s sexuality is frank, but the results are anti-climactic not simply because they are improbable, but because it is difficult to believe they could be as satisfying, even for someone whose hopes have been dashed so often, as Gilbert portrays.
Given that Gilbert is the author of Eat, Pray, Love, the best-selling memoir about searching for spiritual fulfillment in the aftermath of romantic disappointment, I was always waiting, even expecting that the book would descend into religious platitude and superstition, but it never quite does. Gilbert flirts with the supernatural and spiritual, to be sure, but with an eye to inquiry and understanding the human yearning for there to be something more. But for Alma herself, “this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough,” and that sentiment predominates. Alma is intrigued by the fascination others have with the spiritual realm, but she never succumbs to it herself. If the reader is going to abandon the novel for supernatural fancy, it will probably be during Alma and Ambrose’s improbable betrothal, which occurs under bizarre circumstances with dire consequences for both characters. But if the means are suspect, the results are not, and I glad I didn’t stop reading there.
The Signature of All Things is an extremely ambitious story set at the moment in history when natural philosophy becomes science, and the world’s assumptions about religion and the nature of the world are most deeply challenged. Although sometimes described as a family saga, this is a book more about ideas, and how they play out in the life of a single person. Henry and Beatrix are important to the story only as they shape Alma, and Prudence is little more than a footnote. Gilbert has largely succeeded, but just as botany requires a patient student such as Alma, who is willing to spend decades studying moss, this book isn’t going to be for everyone, because it plays out on a long time scale sparsely studded with significant events, and doesn’t offer much in the way of firm answers, clean plot arcs, or even pacing. Some people will find it insufficiently scientific, and others insufficiently religious. Gilbert flirts with both, and remains open to all in a manner I would normally find frustrating, but in this case is actually quite engaging.