Elizabeth Gilbert writes with a sweeping ease, breathing life and fastidious detail into her complex fictional characters – I loved her new novel, The Signature of All Things…
‘Rock star author’ Elizabeth Gilbert
It’s 16 years since Elizabeth Gilbert’s first work of fiction, a collection of short stories entitled Pilgrims was published, and 13 years since her first novel, Stern Men. A long time between drinks, except that in the intervening time there has, of course, been the massive success of her memoir Eat, Pray, Love – the book that spawned the movie and caused Oprah Winfrey to nickname her a ”rock star author”.
Despite her image as an overnight success, therefore, that success has been almost two decades in the making, and the long break away from fiction has done this writer no harm.
This is the third Gilbert book I’ve reviewed and despite the fact that this is fiction, it is interesting to ponder the similarities in the writing, or in the inspiration for the writing. Gilbert is a master at taking an individual life and extrapolating out into a wider universe, whether it’s her life, or someone else’s.
The lives that most concern her in this massive book, reminiscent of a Victorian novel in its breadth and depth, are those of Henry Whittaker and his daughter, Alma.
As the poor but enterprising son of a gardener at Kew Gardens, young Henry is caught stealing botanical treasures from the great Joseph Banks. Banks, out of respect for Henry’s father and because he realises the extent of the boy’s knowledge, offers the boy a chance to avoid punishment by going to sea to search for specimens.
So Henry finds himself aboard Captain Cook’s Resolution, among other boats – witnessing Cook’s violent death in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. When Henry finally returns to England to claim what he thinks will be his rightful place in society after his worldwide work on Banks’ behalf, Banks snubs him, and the humiliated young man vows to become even more successful than Banks. He marries an upright hard-working Dutch woman, Beatrix, and together they sever all family ties, moving to Philadelphia in the US. Here, Henry sets about building a herbal, botanical and pharmaceutical empire, becoming one of the richest men in America.
The Whittakers have one daughter, Alma – not a beautiful girl, as Gilbert writes her, overly large and stocky and with a shock of red hair, and nicknamed ”Plum” by her fond but undiplomatic father. In a strange twist of fate, they also adopt a daughter, Prudence, a beautiful, apparently ice-cold maiden set up as a foil for Alma’s overflowing personality.
In many ways, while The Signature of All Things charts a massive chunk of the world of the late 18th and early 19th century, it is really about relationships, and in particular Alma’s relationships to her family, her few friends, her botany (at which she excels), the elusively androgynous Ambrose Pike, and most importantly, to herself. Take out Alma’s frequent visits to the book-binding closet to, as they used to say, pleasure herself, remove the essential, sexual mystery behind Pike, and his mysterious death in Tahiti, where he has been banished by the heartbroken Alma, and you would have a story that might easily have been penned by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. The extra layers of sexual desire, masturbation and madness, on top of the already mighty themes of botany, slavery, education for women, religion and the presaging of the industrial revolution, create for the reader a complex, humorous, multi-faceted jewel of a book, to be savoured – all of its 500 pages – over many days.
But, you might ask, what exactly is the signature of all things? To describe it would be to give away the kernel of the book, the alchemical process by which Alma gradually comes to know herself and the world. In part, that knowledge comes from her devotion to her beloved mosses – an area of botany she has discovered is sadly neglected until she strides upon the scene, determined to categorise and make sense of this both massive and miniature world of green.
The research into the botanical world of that era is astounding. Gilbert’s ability to create characters so real it’s hard to believe they are fictional is a feat that proves that whether her eye for minute detail is turned on herself, on a subject such as Eustace Conway in The Last American Man, or on a world of her own creation, the sheer sweeping ease with which she writes does indeed make her a writing rock star.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS
Bloomsbury, 504pp, $29.99