Wednesday, November 13, 2013
Book Review: "The Signature of All Things" by Elizabeth Gilbert
Born in 1800 to Henry Whittaker, the English son of a poor gardener who, through every trick in the book, transformed himself into the richest man in Philadelphia, and his blunt, intelligent wife, Beatrix, Alma learned at a very young age that she had the world at her disposal. Encouraged to never stop learning, and questioning everything around her, she was more than able to hold her own in conversations with scientific experts before reaching adulthood. Inspired by her father's successes in botany, Alma throws herself into studying the flora around her voraciously.
But as she grows into adulthood, Alma realizes she wants more out of life than knowledge. While she enjoys the passion that comes from intellectual pursuits and spirited conversation, she also dreams of the passion of romance and sexual fulfillment. But hearing far too many times from childhood that she is "the homely one," she comes to the conclusion that those dreams may never be a reality for her, so she focuses solely on her studies, her science, and helping to manage her father's estate, while dealing with romantic disappointments.
And then in her early 50s, she meets Ambrose Pike, a talented biological lithographer whose paintings of orchids are unlike anything Alma has ever seen. She immediately feels a connection with Ambrosethey are connected by a thirst for knowledge and a passion for nature. Yet while Alma has always focused on the scientific, Ambrose's beliefs lie in more spiritual, magical, and divine areas, which challenges everything she has ever believed and known. But she finds herself falling passionately in love with him.
"There is only so long that a person can keep her enthusiasms locked away within her heart before she longs to share it with a fellow soul, and Alma had many decades of thoughts much overdue for sharing."
Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things is meticulously researched and tremendously detailed. It spans from Henry Whittaker's voyages as a young boy all over the world to Alma's travels as a much older woman. The book takes you to Tahiti, the Netherlands, Chile, Argentina, England, and many other places, and introduces characters as wide and varied as scientific experts, Tahitian natives, missionaries, sailors, and abolitionists. Alma is a fantastically intriguing character. Her presence is tremendously felt throughout the bookthis is a woman whose mind is always working, always seeking, and yet it is her heart that gives her trouble.
While this book has a great deal of charm, and Elizabeth Gilbert is an exceptional storyteller, I just didn't love it. The story at its core was fascinating and intriguing, yet the more detail Gilbert packed in about science and religion, the less it appealed to me. It felt a bit like gilding the lilyGilbert used five, ten, fifteen pages to make a point when I got her point in only one. It took me longer to read this book than I expected because it is very cerebral, although it does have a lot of heart along with its head.
"She knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest."