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.