There are probably sexier, more extravagant ways to celebrate great publishing fortune, especially for someone who has been played onscreen by Julia Roberts. But Elizabeth Gilbert did something unexpected after the ruckus from her big break died down. She studied botany. For 3 1/2 years.
“I’m a geek,” admits the author of Eat, Pray, Love, the bestselling travel-and-self-discovery memoir that sold more than 10 million copies, dominated the bestseller list for 200 weeks, spawned the sequel Committed, was adapted for the screen by Glee creator Ryan Murphy and launched God only knows how many earnest trips to Italy, India and Bali. “I was the girl who had her clothes picked out for school a week before school started. I get excited about learning stuff.”
Fueled by a newfound love of gardening — “I wanted to try to write a 19th century style novel about plants because like all passionate gardeners that’s all I wanted to think about,” Gilbert says — the research pays off handsomely in The Signature of All Things (Viking, $28.95). Gilbert will talk about the novel Wednesday at Miami Dade College’s Wolfson Campus as part of a series celebrating the 30th anniversary of Miami Book Fair International.
A remarkable and compelling historical epic about science, discovery and a woman painstakingly carving out her place in the world, The Signature of All Things taught Gilbert quite a bit. Like her protagonist, the curious amateur botanist Alma Whittaker, Gilbert can tell you more about mosses than you might ever need to know.
“I know enough to know that I don’t know anything about it, especially once you meet the people who know what they’re talking about,” she says, laughing. “Mosses are a black hole into which you can fall and never recover. There are so many varieties. But you don’t get to be the oldest plant on earth by being stupid and boring.”
To Alma, mosses represent a lifeline. Born to self-made entrepreneur Henry Whittaker — a character so flamboyant and charismatic in the first 50 pages that Gilbert feared he’d take over the novel — Alma is a wealthy, brilliant, disciplined woman, but her forays into nature are limited to the huge Philadelphia estate on which she grows up. Once she discovers the potential of mosses as a field of study, however, life opens up to her. “The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature. … She had a task.”
Gilbert, 44, sees some of herself in Alma, a secretly sensual woman who falls in love with the dreamy, ethereal artist Ambrose Pike with not entirely happy results.
“In some ways we couldn’t be more opposite,” Gilbert says. “I’m more like Ambrose, with one foot with the fairies. He’s open to the beyond and the impossible. Alma doesn’t have any of that in her.
“What we share is a rapacious curiosity and excitement. She’s a woman who loves her work. That is a story that doesn’t get told very often. As a woman who does love her work, I know that’s a particular kind of passion. I did not want to write about a woman rescued or ruined by a man. Alma is neither. She doesn’t get the prince the way she wanted, but it doesn’t destroy her.
“One of the things I like most about women is their emotional resilience. Women are able to endure unbelievable amounts of disappointment and it doesn’t kill us. We manage a sort of weird alchemy and turn it into other things.”
If you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love, you know Gilbert has shouldered her own share of disappointment and done a bit of transformation herself. She’s married to the real-life “Felipe” from that book, a story she recounts in Committed; they live in New Jersey, where they run an import store called Two Buttons. She has weathered the predictable backlash against the book and remains grateful for its success.
“People still ask about Eat, Pray, Love; they probably always will,” says Gilbert, who calls it “the godmother” of The Signature of All Things for the freedom it brought her to work on a project she loved. “I don’t begrudge it. Eat, Pray, Love has been the great giving tree for me, and I understand their curiosity.”
In interviews, conversations are usually “half about 19th century botany and half about what’s it like to be married to that Brazilian guy,” she jokes. “But I saw an interview once with John Mellencamp where he was asked if he was tired of playing Jack and Diane, and he said, ‘Hardworking, decent people don’t spend 45 bucks to not hear me play Jack and Diane.’ … I feel the same way. But it is nice to talk about evolution and biology and botany.”
Gilbert, who’s also the author of the novel Stern Men and the story collection Pilgrims, is determined to stick with fiction, at least for now.
“I had so much fun writing this book,” she says. “I kept thinking, ‘Why have I denied myself this?’ Well, I know why — I had some s--- to work out! But it’s a real joy, a kind of salvation for me. One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m incapable of doing that kind of work while I’m in turmoil. I can’t make up drama if I’m focused on my own drama. So it’s a good sign if I’m in a place where I have so little drama I can concentrate on other people’s.”