The Year of Reading Women #1: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

31 Jan

I was given The Signature of All Things (the second novel from Eater, Prayer and Lover Elizabeth Gilbert), as a Christmas present and summer beach read by my lovely mother-out-of-law. She was aiming for something smart and fun enough to be worth reading, yet dumb enough to slow my brain down to a sluggishly relaxed holiday pace and large enough to provide a small patch of shade over my face while sunbaking. She hit the nail on the head.

The Signature of all Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of all Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

Aside from a few slow patches where I almost gave up (but was too comfortable on the sand to move), this book doesn’t tax your efforts as a reader. Following the life of Alma Whittaker, botanist and taxonomist (read: hearty, hale and slightly OCD) from birth to death in colonial Philadelphia, we’re introduced to her lifelong passion for science and discovery, and to the forces of the spiritual and the human worlds that baffle her.

Set against the period of vast and spectacular global change that was the 19th century, there’re plenty of opportunities for cameos by major historical events, characters and ideas – colonialism, abolition, missionaries, the discovery of natural selection, life on the high seas of the Dutch trading fleets.

The book also pays homage to the intellectual women who achieved so much during this period and have been overlooked by history. It’s an interesting premise, and the fact that it offers a female protagonist who interacts with and thinks about things other than men felt like a promising start to my female-authors-only reading adventure.

But Gilbert’s not a great author. Maybe she’ll hone her skills and mature as a writer over the decades, as she’s supported by her six-figure publisher advances, but in the meantime the word ‘amateur’ kept cropping up in my mind. The structure of the book reminded me of the stories I wrote in primary school – ‘and then this happened, and then this happened…’: it’s all chronology and no storycraft. Just like in real life, the emotionally charged events come and go, leaving you bobbing up and down on the surface of the plot, never being fully pulled out by the tide of a structured climax.

Gilbert also has a problem with language. She unforgivably shocks you out of your reading reverie: she breaks the fourth wall. There were times when I found myself immersed in Alma’s life, particularly towards the end of the book, when I felt she was really fleshed out as a character and had more complexity – more inner life. But just as I found myself forgetting my surroundings and living inside that world, language that was inappropriate (either to the period or to Alma’s voice) or that was simply redundant and clumsy, would sharply jolt me out of it.

The modern, colloquial clichés were by far the worst -‘to be fair’, ‘to be honest’ – and made me squirm even more when they were awkwardly crammed in with period-appropriate adjectives. Who the hell is telling me the story here? Is it Alma? Is it a sympathetic, omniscient C19th biographer? Is it a middle-class, C21st self-help book author with an unrealistic opinion of her literary skill?

Sadly it’s d) all of the above.  And in that awkward mix, something leaps out at you: we’re not hearing Gilbert’s authentic voice here – it’s all affectation. I just couldn’t shake the feeling that she has watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, and perhaps read a Dickens novel or two, and decided that was enough for a complete and comfortable grasp of educated Victorian conversational style. Top tip: it’s not. You sound weird.

But when it comes down to it, I feel uncomfortable about gleefully slamming this book, because the truth is that I quite liked it. While my reading habits are usually a combination of hyper-critical and lazy – and as a result I have a healthy and growing ‘life’s too short pile’ of abandoned books, somehow The Signature of All Things didn’t suffer that fate. I read it all, and I actually enjoyed it.

Alma is a complex, troubled, flawed character. But you don’t have to like her, because she’s interesting, and that’s more important. She falls in love, but not in her youth – and her love story is both heartbreakingly unrequited and somehow emotionally satisfying. She lives a full life, full of the meaning that comes from learning: learning about relationships, yes, but also about herself, and about the world, full of natural, ethical and political wonders.

It’s also an adventure story, of a kind. The second half of the book is undoubtedly better than the first, because it unleashes the potential of the period (seafaring curs, industrial revolutionaries, renaissance men and women of science – swash, swash, buckle buckle) to lift you up and carry you away. C19th intercontinental travel is something every reader should try, and Alma’s journey doesn’t disappoint.

All in all, three stars. Despite its lofty philosophical ambitions, it didn’t rock my universe, or even my world. But it did gently rock my boat.

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