To offer a 500-page novel about an undersexed female botanist living and working in Philadelphia in the mid-1800s is an audacious undertaking for any author — but The Signature of All Things comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, a National Book Award finalist and mega-selling memoirist whose Eat, Pray, Love and Committed made her personal journey of spiritual discovery an international sensation. So the ambitious scale and subject of her new novel may not surprise many readers.
Though in her new book’s setting and narrative style, Gilbert reaches out to Victorian novelists like George Eliot as obvious models, The Signature of All Things in many ways resembles her personable and compulsively readable memoirs. Our heroine, Alma Whittaker, is omniscient and chatty, with plenty of asides. “Then quite suddenly, absolutely out of nowhere, Alma was run over by a horse. Or that was what it felt like.” We first see Alma through the lens of her father, a self-made Englishman whose petty theft as a child allowed him to sail the wide seas, and make a successful career importing exotic plants to America.
“She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning.” Therefore, Alma is brusque and unfortunately, not very attractive. She is content to study mosses (“bryology” for the uninitiated) and publish several academic papers on the subject, no small feat for a woman of her time. Eventually — after trials and explorations that take her to the far side of the world — she even anticipates one of the greatest scientific theories of the age, though the triumph remains almost entirely personal.
However devoted to her research, Alma, like George Eliot’s Dororthea, has a passionate nature, but she is unlucky in love – she fancies her research partner, but he ends up married to her bimbo best friend — which is not to say this book is without its steamy scenes. Thanks to the discovery of “Cum Grano Salis,” a book on the joys of sex, in Henry’s expansive library, Alma locks herself into the library’s binding closet to masturbate for the first time. When finished, she thinks, “I shall have to do this again.” Spoken like a true scientist.
Though this novel veers into far-fetched, even kooky territory in its second half, we continue to root for our heroine. Alma marries a younger man, an eccentric orchid illustrator named Ambrose Pike. He tells her of the work of Jacob Boehme, “a sixteenth century cobbler from Germany who had mystical visions about plants…who believed in ‘the signature of all things’…namely that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth.” For most women, Ambrose’s strange philosophy might have been a red flag. But Alma, a 48-year-old virgin botanist, mistakes it for passion.
Sadly, the marriage is sexless and, for Alma, an utter failure. Her former governess Hanneke de Groot tells Alma, “We all fall prey to nonsense at times, child, and sometimes we are fool enough to even love it.” She ships Ambrose off to Tahiti to work in her father’s vanilla plantation out of embarrassment. When he dies there under mysterious circumstances, she follows in his footsteps, hoping to uncover the truth about Ambrose’s rejection of her. The Tahitian interlude, though it includes an entertainingly motley crew of characters, seems a bit out of character for Alma, who defines herself based on self-reliance. But how many epic sagas have you read with a female protagonist that feature almost no romance whatsoever? Perhaps Alma’s obsession with her dead husband and her desperate need to “fornicate at last, to put a man’s member inside her mouth” is Gilbert’s way of acknowledging that even the most independent-minded of women still seek romantic and sexual experience, if not fulfillment, in their lives.
Eventually Alma finds her way to Amsterdam, where she rekindles her relationship with her mother’s Dutch family and becomes master of mosses at the Botanical Garden. Her journey does not end with the typical, “reader, I married him” format. Instead, the two men that enter her life are none other than Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Upon striking up a friendship with Wallace, Alma looks back on her life. “Darwin would belong to history, yes, but Alma had Wallace…. Then, Wallace too, would be gone. But for now, at least he was aware of her. She was known.” In the end, Alma finds happiness doing what she has always loved — not with a romantic partner — but as part of a far-flung community of intellectual equals. Audacious indeed.