You probably have not given much thought to mosses, how they live, die and reproduce or what they signify in the natural world. But Alma Whittaker, the scholarly, dogged protagonist of Elizabeth Gilbert’s dazzling new novel, can tell you that they are worth revering. She admires “[t]heir dignity … their silence and intelligence … I suppose I admire their modesty, as well. Mosses hold their beauty in elegant reserve.”
Much the same could be said of Alma, not because she tries to hide her beauty — expressed in the form of her brilliant, inquisitive mind — but because it’s not much valued in America in the 1800s, particularly in women. Awkward, ungainly, rigorously trained to question everything by her self-educated Dutch mother and a “right little dromedary,” in the words of her English father, Alma is no 19th century ideal of the female perfection. But she is the perfect guide to Gilbert’s ambitious, riveting assault on all the big questions about life, love, faith, truth and science.
The Signature of All Things is Gilbert’s third work of fiction — after the story collection Pilgrims and the novel Stern Men — and it is her best. Gilbert, of course, is most famous for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, about her physical and spiritual travels in Italy, India and Bali. But The Signature of All Things provides the real evidence of her talent. It’s a thrilling epic set at a time when intellectual curiosity met unbridled ambition and resulted in a whirlwind of discovery. If you don’t think science or historical fiction can be bright, funny and engaging, this novel will quickly prove you wrong.
But amid her exploration of such subjects as evolution and spirituality, Gilbert never gives short shrift to the human side of the story. Alma is fully fleshed out, a blunt, passionate woman with fears, jealousies and surprising carnal desires, whose greatest love affair is with her work. Gilbert’s depiction of the explosion of scientific thought is reminiscent of Andrea Barrett’s fine fiction, but she also examines Alma’s most important relationship in a way that’s unique and compelling.
The novel opens with Alma’s birth in 1800 and slides directly into the rollicking tale of Henry Whittaker, Alma’s father, the quintessential self-made man who rises from poverty in England to become one of the most powerful botanical importers in America. Henry’s story of theft, treachery and adventure is engaging enough to warrant a book of its own, but Gilbert wisely pulls the old rascal out of the spotlight once Alma is born (though he lurks on the periphery, grumbling and agitating to the very end).
The bulk of the story takes place within Alma’s narrow parameters, the grounds of White Acre, Henry’s vast Philadelphia estate, where she learns to collect data about every living thing on the property. Her unsentimental mother, Beatrix (“a living slab of ballast”), informs her development as much as Henry; “Nothing is so essential as dignity,” she tells Alma and her aloof, adopted sister, Prudence.
Alma grows up. She publishes a few minor articles and gets her heart broken. Eventually, Prudence teaches her a valuable lesson in sacrifice, Alma challenges her mother’s advice, and her world begins to expand in stunning, exotic ways. Expecting to spend her days studying at White Acre, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, an artist whose splendid renderings of orchids take her breath away. Their meeting and his insistent belief on “the signature of all things” — the belief that “God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth” — confounds Alma’s scientific practicality.
“I simply do not comprehend the Lord toward whom you are leaping,” she says. “I cannot live here in the same shining city upon the hill that you inhabit.” But her emotional ties to Ambrose will shape her life.
Such ordinary things happen to Alma, and such remarkable things, too. But always, she remains true to herself, and Gilbert remains true to her vision of this extraordinary woman. “Argument is my lifelong bedfellow,” Alma tells Ambrose. “Argument is our most steadfast pathway toward truth.” Truth is always the grail in Alma’s quest — and in Gilbert’s big-hearted, sweeping, unforgettable novel. As Charles Darwin, author of The Origin of Species, said: “There is grandeur in this view of life.”
Connie Ogle is the Miami Herald’s book editor.