“The Signature of All Things”, by Elizabeth Gilbert

the-signature-of-all-thingsI was so gripped by this novel that I read it crossing the street, heading from tram to train, and for two days on every tram and train trip I could devise.

The Signature of All Things signals Gilbert’s return to fiction after her successes with the Eat, Pray, Love megalith, and here she recounts the explorations of one Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century female bryologist (or moss specialist). Precocious Alma is raised to astounding wealth in Pennsylvania, analyses the botanical samples of her father’s estate for decades while running the family’s pharmaceutical empire, spends a year in Tahiti in penance for emotional crimes (which I’ll let you discover for yourself), and ends her long life in Amsterdam as the esteemed Keeper of the Mosses at the Hortus Botanicus.

Gilbert’s writing is simply excellent, as ever — fans might also enjoy her too-little-known The Last American Man — and certain passages of this novel are sublime: the constellation scene at the ball and the women’s football match are both unforgettable. The settings in Pennsylvania and Tahiti are richly detailed, and the historical research underpinning the novel seems comprehensive. I thought her characters could have been pushed further out of the realms of cliche than Gilbert managed, and I think she shortchanged her heroine romantically (she deserved better!), but it was still an entirely absorbing and beautiful novel. Splendid, even.

The Signature of Things — Elizabeth Gilbert — Bloomsbury — PB — $30.00

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