Elizabeth Gilbert is well known for her autobiographical best-sellers, including the blockbuster “Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia” (Viking Adult 2006) and “Committed: A Love Story” (Viking, 2009).
So it comes as a great surprise that her new novel, “The Signature of All Things” (Viking Adult, 2013), is an exquisitely detailed fictional account of the life of a strong female botanist, Anna Whittaker. Gilbert guides readers through the life of this remarkable woman, from birth to old age, weaving a compelling tale that incorporates some of the scientific and intellectual currents of thought in the mid- to late-1800s.
Anna has the great good fortune to be born to the right family at the right time in history. Her father, an ambitious, self-made man, is a passionate botanist who provides young Anna with all the resources she needs to develop her interest in the field. Anna spends much of her youth as a lonely, rather plain girl, with few friends and many responsibilities on her family’s vast estate on the outskirts of Philadelphia.
She eventually meets and marries a wonderful man, Ambrose Pike, but a rather tragic misunderstanding mars their relationship and Ambrose leaves the country, never to be seen again.
It is only when this and other crises occur in Anna’s life that she is able to free herself from the demands of her family and begin to live a truly authentic life. And, frankly, that is when the novel becomes most enthralling. This is a long book – nearly 500 pages – and the first half drags somewhat with its descriptions of Anna’s rapturous discovery of the world of mosses. But in the second half, Anna travels the world, takes more chances in her relationships and pursues the truth rigorously, both in discovering the true nature of her husband and in attempting to understand the order of the natural world.
Gilbert presents a nice parallel in the book, comparing man’s struggle with the concepts and implications of natural selection with the questions raised by Ambrose’s disappearance. Readers see that while Anna and historical figures like Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace struggle to formulate a scientific understanding of man’s place in the universe in the late 1800s, people like Ambrose, who pursue spiritual knowledge and purity in the world, are not surviving very well.
In the end, Anna is able to share her own remarkable discoveries with Wallace – a very touching scene.
Despite its daunting length, “The Signature of All Things” is an engaging read featuring many fresh, interesting characters. I do wish that authors would give readers a break and not write such long books – all of the books on my end table are more than 500 pages. I recommend that book clubs alternate their selections between long and shorter books, and give plenty of advance notice. Books like Gilbert’s are worthwhile and memorable – and give readers plenty of food for thought.