Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things


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Buy this book. Not on Kindle. Hardcover.  You will want to read it more than once.  You won’t want to deny yourself the sensory pleasure and elegant design of Elizabeth Gilbert’s brilliantly written The Signature of All Things.  It is one of the most enchanting books I’ve ever read.  I savored every word so much that I’m having a hard time sharing the intimately decadent experience of reading it.

I didn’t expect to like this book.  It’s historical fiction rooted in botany.  The term “signature of all things” refers to divine code or DNA.  How can that possibly be interesting?  Oh, my!

Did you ever date the nerdy guy you had discounted only to discover he’s as brilliant in the bedroom as he is in the boardroom or lab?  He can play your body like Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello?  Best love affair ever?  You don’t want to share?

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To be prosperous and happy in life, Henry, it is simple.
Pick one woman, pick it well, and surrender. . .
Henry had the good sense not to protest twice.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things is deeply philosophical, highly erotic, and hysterically funny in equal measures.  Like a great lover.  In essence, it is the grad school version of Eat, Pray, Love with an historical twist.

It was inspired by Ms. Gilbert’s heirloom 1784 edition of Captain Cook’s Voyages Round the World.  Sir Joseph Banks, a botanist, sailed with Captain Cook.  Alfred Russel Wallace was a naturalist whose theories of evolution paralleled Charles Darwin’s research.

Ms. Gilbert's copy of Cooks Voyages

Ms. Gilbert’s copy of Cooks Voyages

Alma Whittaker was a brilliant feminist.  Her ancestors were highly-disciplined, hard-working European botanists.  Her ruthless father Henry was British.  Her stoic mother Beatrix was Dutch.  They immigrated to America, and Henry leveraged his botanical genius to pioneer the pharmaceutical industry.  He became the Bill Gates of his time.  His lavish estate White Acre in Philadelphia had several greenhouses.

The Woodlands in Philadelphia was the inspiration for White Acre

The Woodlands in Philadelphia was the inspiration for White Acre

Philadelphia ~ the lively capital. . .good enough shipping port. . .
filled with pragmatic Quakers, pharmacists, and hardworking farmers. . .
The city had been founded on the sound principles of religious tolerance,
free press, and good landscaping, by William Penn. . .
Everyone was welcome in Philadelphia.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

Alma was born on January 5, 1800.  Henry and Beatrix were equal partners in business and in their marriage.  Each had an enforcer:  Hanneke de Groot was the estate’s housekeeper, and Dick Yancey intimidated globally:

My father was a conqueror. . .the nature of a conqueror. . .is to acquire whatever he wishes to acquire.

. . .you do not quite understand what a conqueror is.  It is not necessary for me to force things ~ once I am decided, the others have no choice.

The tension between the male sense of entitlement and female duty to serve and give is paramount in Ms. Gilbert’s feminist philosophy.  She believes we need a new archetype that weaves together the testing of talents during a hero’s journey with the sharing of those lessons in the community and making it possible for others to embark on their own adventures.

The Woodlands in Philadelphia

The Woodlands in Philadelphia

I am a woman of independent means.
Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

Before he settled in Philadelphia, Henry had sailed the world on a hero’s journey that included Captain Cook’s infamous voyage.  Alma, on the other hand, was expected to play a supporting role and sublimate her ambitions.  She was not free to launch her own hero’s journey.  This is the theme that unites Eat, Pray, Love and The Signature of All Things.

Elizabeth Gilbert at her home in Frenchtown, NJ

Elizabeth Gilbert in her Skybrary, the attic crow’s nest where she wrote The Signature of All Things, at her home in Frenchtown, NJ

Never explain yourself, Alma.
It makes you appear weak.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

The Whittakers adopted Polly and changed her name to Prudence:

On that Tuesday night in November of 1809, the gardener had awoken his wife from a peaceful sleep beside him, dragged her outside by her hair, and cut her neck from ear to ear.  Immediately after, he hanged himself from a nearby elm. . .Left behind. . .Polly. . .

Half the men in that room had copulated with that girl’s mother. . .Beatrix and Hanneke. . .did not like to imagine what might be in store for this pretty thing, for this spawn of the whore.

The two women, acting as one, clutched Polly away from the mob. . .an act of intuition, sprung from a deep and unspoken feminine knowledge of how the world functions.  One does not leave so small and beautiful a female creature alone with ten heated men in the middle of the night. . .

Beatrix had always wanted another child, and now, by dint of providence, a child had arrived. . .Beatrix saw distinct promise in Polly. . .first task was to clean her up. . .change her name.  Polly was a suitable name only to a pet bird or a street girl for hire. . .child would be called Prudence.

Elizabeth Gilbert

Natural selection had been Darwin’s idea first.
But it had not been Darwin’s idea uniquely.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

Alma and Prudence were polar opposites and never bonded as sisters.

Beatrix Whittaker died when Alma was just twenty years old.  Alma stepped into her mother’s shoes and learned the complex affairs of her father’s global empire.  She was curator of his vast library and focused her intellect on the study of moss.  It wasn’t the only subject she studied with abject passion:

The cave. . .throbbed with moss. . .

This act was the one thing in her life she had ever really wanted to do.

GilbertWildflowers

I would like to sleep beside you every night for the rest of my life, and
listen to your thoughts forever.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

With all their daddy’s money, you might assume that Alma and Prudence would be surrounded by suitors and marry happily.  Alas, they both married Mr. Really Wrong:

There was not a man who set foot on this property who did not look at your sister as if he wished to purchase her for a night’s entertainment. . .

All Prudence ever wished for, Alma, was not to be seen.  You cannot know what it feels like, to be stared at by men your whole life as though you are standing on an auction block. . .

George Hawkes was the only man who ever looked at your sister kindly ~ not as an item, but as a soul. . .Can you not see how a man like that could make a woman feel safe?

. . .George Hawkes had always made Alma herself feel safe.  Safe and recognized.

The only plot twist I will reveal is that both sisters loved George Hawkes.

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One must bear what cannot be escaped.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

After Henry’s death, Alma left White Acre and Philadelphia for the first time in her life and set sail on her own hero’s journey to Tahiti:

. . .you were your father’s favorite. . .Henry loved you even more, perhaps, than he loved his own wife?

. . .If the person of most consequence in the world has chosen to prefer us over all others, we become accustomed to having what we wish for. . .How can we not feel that we are strong?

GilbertGarden

I come to the people and chant our encouragement.
My people have suffered a great deal, and
I push them to be strong again.
– Elizabeth Gilbert, The Signature of All Things

While studying moss, Alma was on a parallel track with Charles Darwin.  Her theory:

. . .the struggle for existence. . .did not merely define life on earth; it had created life on earth. . .

The planet was a place of limited resources.  Competition for these resources was heated and constant.  Individuals who managed to endure the trials of life generally did so because of some feature or mutation that made them more hardy, more clever, more inventive, or more resilient. . .advantageous differentiation. . .the surviving individuals were able to pass along their beneficial traits to offspring, who were thus able to enjoy the comforts of dominance. . .until some other, superior, competitor came along, or a necessary resource vanished. . .never-ending battle for survival, the very design of species inevitably shifted.

. . .it was not always the most beautiful, brilliant, original, or graceful who survived the struggle for existence; sometimes it was the most ruthless, or the most lucky, or maybe just the most stubborn.

The trick at every turn was to endure. . .those who survived the world shaped it ~ even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them. . .

MossWhy had she not published?

. . .Whittaker and Wallace:  comrades in obscurity. . .

. . .why did you never publish?

Because it was never good enough.

Related links and reviews:

The Woodlands, the Philadelphia estate which was the inspiration for White Acre

Spotlight:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s Philadelphia Story, by Norman Vanamee with beautiful photos of the Woodlands, Elizabeth Gilbert, and her dog Rocky by Barry Sutton, 10/13

Elizabeth Gilbert’s Epic Return to Fiction, by Alexandra Alter, Wall Street Journal, 9/5/13

Eat, Pray, Love, Get Rich, Write a Novel No One Expects, by Steve Almond, New York Times, 9/18/13

The Botany of Desire, by Barbara Kingsolver, New York Times, 9/26/13

Elizabeth Gilbert, In Full Bloom, by Katie Arnold-Ratliff, O Magazine, 9/21/13

Elizabeth Gilbert:  Eat, Pray, Love

Elizabeth Gilbert at the YWCA’s Inspire Luncheon, Everett. WA, 5/9/13

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One response to “Book Review: Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Most Fundamental Rule of Writing | Akhlis' Blog·

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