Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

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Elizabeth Gilbert’s marvelous bestseller Eat, Pray, Love (which became a major motion picture starring Julia Roberts in 2010) left readers craving another novel that would tackle human nature and happiness in the same amusing tone. The release of The Signature of All Things this past October was received by an optimist audience, ready to be amazed by life’s adventures.

While the book is well researched and written, it does not reach Gilbert’s past literary success because Alma, the protagonist, is weak and unfocused. Gilbert’s historical and scientific research embellishes the novel with great detail on botany and the scientific method but, ultimately, leaves much to be desired. The #1 New York Times bestselling author tried to approach the story of a 19th century botanical heiress with intellect and tact but crammed too much information in 400 pages that could have contained half of the topics. Gilbert faced the ultimate challenge of quantity vs. quality and sadly, dismissed the latter.

The narrative follows the life of the Whittaker family, focalizing on Alma Whittaker. Alma has been born into an extremely successful botanical trading family in Pennsylvania; with an English father who hates England and a Dutch mother who hates idleness. Her childhood is spent in a vigorous academic environment that shapes her future as a botanist specializing on moss. She spends her life deprived from society, only ever having one friend who goes mad and continuously ignoring her adoptive sister. Intellect makes her undesired by men and leaves her single until she turns 45, when she marries a man 10 years her senior who is later revealed homosexual. She leaves her life-long home and travels to Tahiti to uncover this mystery and understand her late husband. There she learns about life and love, as well as the tropics. Her life ends in Amsterdam where she finishes and publishes her book on The Mosses of North America.

Now, this book could have been marvelous. It has all the ingredients for an ingenious story: travel, a young protagonist, jealousy, hope and a very interesting subject, botany. Alma’s focus on moss also prompts the story as it stands as a metaphor for life. Moss is filled with tiny cities and arabesques that can only be studied with patience. It symbolizes the importance of small things we tend to overlook. Gilbert explores this idea but does not spend enough time considering the impact of these plants on her protagonist. She tires to incorporate love, lust, sexuality, trade, travel, stereotypes, age, tantric sex and even post-colonial life into one volume. Alma’s life is interesting but the novel’s excruciating physical narration does not delve into the psychological aspects of life. Her attempt to measure Alma’s life and teach readers about the balance between science and religion is cut short by the quantity of the material. Each period of the biography contains polar topics and situations that don’t merge and leave the reader dazed and whirling.

4/10 – The book is a respectable attempt that does not meet its goals.

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and is available now.

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