What do you see when you look at a boulder covered in moss? For most of us the answer is not much. But when Alma Whittaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s magnificent new novel, examines a mossy stone, she sees a whole new world.
“This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the centre of the boulder, where are all the water pooled.”
The Signature of All Things traces Alma's long life from the Enlightenment to the dawn of the modern world. It begins with her birth, in 1800, before looping back to tell the story of her father, Henry, a gardener's son who grows up to travel the world with Captain Cook and eventually makes a vast fortune as a botanical importer. Henry and his Dutch wife, Beatrice, settle in a lavish estate in Philadelphia, where Alma grows up surrounded not just by the finest greenhouses and botanical library in the country but also by fierce intellectual debate.
A strapping girl who is made painfully aware at an early age that she isn’t beautiful, Alma is given a rigorous education by her mother. This education and her interest in botany lead Alma to embark on what will become her life’s work, the study of moss.
But although she relishes intellectual challenges, Alma is lonely; her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence, is remote and unknowable, and the only jollity in her young life comes from a brief friendship with a flighty young neighbour called Retta Snow. It’s not until her late 40s, when she meets a younger botanical enthusiast called Ambrose Pike, that Alma encounters what she feels is a kindred spirit. But their relationship does not develop in the way she expects.
The Signature of All Things is a book packed full of complicated ideas about sexuality and desire, about spiritual and intellectual hunger, about the need to both understand and be understood. It's through Alma's relationship with Ambrose that Gilbert explores the deep schism between science and spirituality that began to emerge in the 19th century.
She wisely makes no attempt to adopt a 19th-century prose style, but her depiction of Alma's world is utterly convincing. Gilbert spent three years on research before she began to write The Signature of All Things, and the results are effortlessly incorporated into the story without ever feeling forced.
Alma’s moss studies lead her to develop what she ultimately calls her theory of competitive alteration. But she’s unaware that several thousand miles away a man called Charles Darwin is working on a similar idea. Alma’s discoveries are presented not as a fictional gimmick (the imaginary woman who could have pipped Darwin to the post!) but in the context of the scientific world at the time, when such ideas were increasingly being widely discussed.
Nor does Alma feel like the sort of anachronistic figure common to many historical novels, a 21st-century woman fighting against 19th-century limitations. She’s less interested in changing the world than in understanding it.
This is Gilbert's first work of fiction in a decade. She is best known for her enormously successful memoir of self-discovery, Eat Pray Love, in which she travelled to Italy, Indonesia and India. That book won her tens of millions of fans, though the very concept put off many readers (including me). But Gilbert has always been a skilled and witty writer, and this book will beguile those who would never pick up her memoirs.
Through Alma’s long and tangled story, Gilbert shows that sometimes there are no easy answers to our questions about ourselves, the world or other people, and that some desires are doomed to frustration. But fulfilment can be found in other things, and for Alma one of those things is work that absorbs her. When she asks Ambrose why she can’t be satisfied with the life of a leisured lady, Ambrose tells her it’s because she is “interested in creation, and all its wonderful arrangements”. It’s an interest that proves her salvation.
If you don’t share this interest, it doesn’t matter. Gilbert’s beautifully vivid writing is just the right side of lyrical and ensures that Alma’s enthusiasm is infectious. Indeed, I was fascinated not just by Alma but by everyone around her, from the enigmatic Prudence and stern housekeeper, Hanneke de Groot, to the charismatic missionary and unprepossessing dog she encounters in Tahiti.
I was just a few pages into the book when I felt myself relax, aware that I was in the safe hands of a master storyteller. I had no idea where Gilbert was taking me, but I was eager to find out. The narrative rarely goes where one would expect, but the reader is always aware that Gilbert knows exactly what she’s doing.
In fact, as she traces Alma’s story over the course of nearly nine decades, Gilbert brilliantly conveys not just a vivid, complex personality but an entire lifetime, one that feels entire and real, right down to its aborted dreams and unanswered questions.
I emerged from this compassionate, utterly unsentimental book with my mind full of charismatic botanists and unlikely kindnesses, of Tahitian beaches and Pennsylvanian gardens. For a moment, I felt as though I’d lived another life.
Anna Carey's third book is Rebecca Rocks.