Elizabeth Gilbert: The Signature of All Things



We’ve just had a hot thundery weekend in Melbourne, but I’ve hardly been aware of it. I’ve spent two afternoons on my comfy reading sofa engrossed in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things.

There are comments on Amazon praising this book and accusing readers who diss this author’s earlier work Eat Pray Love for being snobs and  automatically disliking any fiction that is popular. Eat Pray Love was a massive success and made into a film with Julia Roberts (which also put some people off.) In fact I’ve  just had a  conversation with a woman who was turned off The Signature of All Things retrospectively when she realised the author had also written Eat Pray Love. I predict The Signature of all Things will also be made into a film, but, as the main character is said to be quite unattractive, she will probably be played by Merryl Streep (who of course is not unattractive, but the film industry, etc…)

One of the problems with Eat Pray Love in my view is that, while it is quite a pleasant light read, even funny at times, many readers took it seriously and found it ‘life changing.’ The same issues are apparent in the Amazon comments for this new book. Writers complain that it has been recommended to them as ‘exquisite’, but they have not found it so. The book is better described as a big bawdy read, with a great interest in the development of science over more than eighty years, right up until the publication of The Origin of Species. It explores the gulfs between science and religion, the two main characters having totally different takes on the purpose and nature of the natural world.

I  thoroughly enjoyed my hours on the sofa reading this book. I found the voice engaging, a kind of Victorian authorial voice, not unlike Wilkie Collins, giving the occasional ironic comment on one or another character. The characters are engaging, full of drive and passion in their pursuit of fame and knowledge. There are interesting twists in the heroine Alma Whittaker’s life as she grows to become a brilliant girl, able to hold her own in any discussion with the learned visitors to her father’s estate. Alma is educated by her mother and father and soon becomes an essential part in the running of White Acres, their vast estate, and her father’s huge pharmaceutical business. She has her heartbreaks, and when she is at the point of feeling she has exhausted all possible avenues for botanical study on the estate she discovers the humble moss, which she soon realises is an inexhaustible topic of study.

Alma is a passionate flawed character, and one who has to learn the lessons of life the hard way. She has to find means to satisfy her strong sexual desire and this is a central theme in the book. As a sixteen year old, Alma finds a book Cum Grano Salis, written in the voice of an educated man of letters, but one who writes about his sensual adventures rather than scientific topics:

‘It puzzles me,’ wrote Anonymous in his introduction, ‘that we are all bequeathed at birth with the most marvellous bodily pricks and holes, which the youngest child knows are the objects of pure delight, but which we must pretend in the name of civilization are abominations – never to be touched, never to be shared, never to be enjoyed!’

Alma takes this book as another object of study and it makes a radical change in her life, but is also a deep cause of sadness later.

This is book of exploration of the outer world as well as the inner. Alma’s father starts life as an impoverished thief who sails on an expedition with Joseph Banks. Alma ends up…

You’ll have to find that out for yourself. I never like to give much away, but I assure you it’s worth the journey. Especially if you are in the middle of inhospitable weather. Just don’t expect the book to be ‘exquisite’.

11 thoughts on “Elizabeth Gilbert: The Signature of All Things

  1. I like what you say here about Gilbert’s authorial voice and style. There’s a strong chance that a member of my book group will pick Signature so I may well end up reading it!

  2. I stand accused for being one of those who didn’t pick this up becuase of disliking Eat, Pray, Love so much. That isn’t fair of me, is it? Yet I wonder how I’d receive this after disliking the “heroine”, and consequently author, of the first book. Everyone I respect though, such as yourself, gives Signature high praise. Maybe someday…I am intrigued with how you said there was something about Wilkie Collins in the voice.

    1. I don’t know that I’d make reading this book a high priority. I have just ordered Quiet Chaos by Sandro Veronesi and Heaven and Hell by Jon Kalman Stefansson because of your inspiring reviews and feel they will be more my cup of tea. But I am in a book group sigh and sometimes have to venture into the world of more mainstream fiction. If you are on a long journey or mildly unwell this is the book for you. But I wouldn’t let it get in the way of reading other more challenging work. Still well done Elizabeth Gilbert for writing a really good read.

      1. Now I hope that Quiet Chaos is appealing to you; I’d hate suggesting something that you end up disliking. But, I was crazy about Steffanson’s book. While I haven’t read the first, as you are doing, the second (Sorrow of Angels) ending up being in my top five for last year. We’ll talk when you finish, ok? xo

  3. It seems to me that requiring anything to be exquisite in order to be worth my while is an excellent recipe for nearly perpetual disappointment, while letting life surprise me with its frequency of being far better than it ought to be by odds lends itself to a generally happy existence. Why complicate things?

  4. We have a post coming up on pessimism that is exactly in line with what you say. According to this theory pessimists are the happiest people because they are often pleasantly surprised.

    1. This must, then, confirm my dyslexic soul, since I think of myself as a ‘serious optimist’: a person who assumes that the best is likely to happen but prepares for the worst so that even the expected good can feel like a pleasant surprise when it arrives. 😉

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