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’.