“The Signature of All Things” written by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of “Eat, Pray, Love” (and Julia Roberts look-a-like?) tells the whirlwind life story of Alma Whittaker, who was “born with the century…on the fifth of January, 1800”*. With a first line this beautiful the reader is already rooting for Alma. With an entrance like that, how can you not? But back up because “Part One: The Tree of Fevers” is all about dad, Henry Whittaker, and his early life in England circa the 1770s. Following in the footsteps of his idol Sir Joseph Banks, a gentleman, (and “chief botanist for Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour”), Henry Whittaker joins Cook’s “third voyage around the world” in 1776.
This is not a book about Henry Whittaker because, starting on page fifty-one, “Part Two: The Plum of White Acre” begins the tale of Alma’s ninety year life story. We are introduced to Henry Whittaker first because his rise out of poverty after his world-wide adventures at sea and into unimaginable wealth and fame as both a botanist and businessman (exploiting the ignorance, and health, of those around him for the sake of his business in herbal remedies) and as a man of domineering presence, prone to temper-tantrums and lack of empathy for others (would a man of this description really be able to top it off with a strong insight into human emotions?) was what made Alma who she is: a practical, capable woman of resonance.
Predictably, Alma follows in Henry’s footsteps of becoming a renowned botanist. Her work is most appreciated especially her decades-long study of North American mosses, along with dozens upon dozens of scientific articles published under her own name. This was quite a feat for a woman in the scientific community during the 1800s. Alma’s life is guided by her passion for scientific study of the world around her. This first encompasses her home in Pennsylvania, a sprawling estate called White Acre, and then her world expands to include the tropics of Tahiti, and finally, a return to Europe where her heritage lies. Near the end of her life Alma joyfully meets Alfred Russell Wallace, who
“…argued that nothing was more important than the investigation of that which appeared to defy the rules of nature, for who were we to claim that we understood the rules of nature? Everything was a miracle until we solved it”.
His work with Charles Darwin intellectually stimulated the final decade of Alma’s life as she gleefully rooted for both men whose work on evolution closely mirrored her own hypothesis and thesis on the subject. Yet the reader can’t help but wonder if this four hundred and ninety-nine page books isn’t simply a telling of all of Alma’s lifelong series of disappointments. Socially and romantically, Alma is a woman constantly playing catch-up, and she spends much time quite disturbed by this. Her fixations on this are essentially what drives her further into the scientific world, where facts are facts which cannot be disputed, and everything has a concrete answer. Alma’s life is powered by a thirst for answers. Yet for all the glory and satisfaction she receives from her work, the reader cannot help but wish she could just catch a break for once. But she did.
“What did she believe?”
“I believe that we are half-blind and full of errors. I believe that we understand very little, and what we do understand is mostly wrong. I believe that life cannot be survived – that is evident! – but if one is lucky, life can be endured for quite a long while. If one is both lucky and stubborn, life can sometimes even be enjoyed.”
I read and very much enjoyed “Eat, Pray, Love” a few years ago, and came into “The Signature of All Things” anticipating another round of Gilbert’s charming wit. Yet I wasn’t anticipating the masterful storytelling that this utterly beautiful, silencing novel encompasses. This is the book that Gilbert was born to write, and I venture to say the one that will be her legacy.
*All in quotations are from:
Gilbert, Elizabeth. The Signature of All Things. New York. 2013.