The Signature of All Things is an undulating novel of botany and desire, redolent of Dickens and Eliot—a modern classic, a reader’s book. “It was the most joyful thing I think I’ve ever made, and I think that it was such a homecoming,” says author Elizabeth Gilbert.
What may seem like a departure for the best-selling writer is, indeed, a return: Gilbert started out as a journalist and novelist influenced by the sprawling stories of Dickens and Eliot. What she is trying to achieve with her new novel is “to give my readers a giant galloping narrative, to transport them through unexpected turns and twists and reversals of fortune, to bring them with me on every page,” she says.
The novel follows an extraordinary woman to near death, beginning with her first breath. “Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800,” reads sentence one. From White Acre, the sprawling estate built up by a monomaniacal British botanist father and stern Dutch horticulturist mother, in Philadelphia, to Tahiti and back again, Alma engages in scientific and sensual exploration with equal verve, and meets with varied successes.
She has exceptional academic aptitude. “Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars,” Gilbert writes, but a relatively lower emotional intelligence quotient. After years of studying White Acre’s books and grounds, she becomes the foremost expert on mosses and develops a pioneering theory of transmutation: “Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died,” she writes. Yet she endures a marriage blanc to ethereal, esoteric Ambrose, an uncommonly gifted illustrator of plants. When tragedy befalls, Alma launches an epic quest, hungry for the truth. “Women have tremendous capacity to survive disappointment, not just to endure it but to go forward and...become full and complete human beings,” says Gilbert.
What makes Alma such a compelling character—a full and complete human being—is the application of a modern sensibility to the 19th century. The treatment of Alma’s alternately burgeoning and stymied sexuality could never be found in a Victorian novel. “This is where I’m veering away from Eliot and Dickens and Austen, but with great freedom comes great responsibility. I didn’t want to humiliate this character who I loved but she very much in my mind needed to be a very sensual and earthy person. She needed that carnality,” says Gilbert. The result reads as both familiar and exciting.
Alma’s surroundings and interests were painstakingly researched over a course of several years by Gilbert, who placed an emphasis on 19th-century letter-reading to internalize vocabulary and cadence (Walt Whitman’s letters were of particular interest). Captain Cook’s journals informed Alma’s Tahiti voyage. The famous writings of a certain evolutionary biologist, Alma’s contemporary, are also in evidence.
At over 500 pages of lush verbiage, verdant scenery and compelling characters, Signature is an epic journey to which Gilbert eagerly invites readers of all stripes. “We are going to go on a great adventure together, so just come with me, just come along, trust me,” says Gilbert. “I had to convince myself that I could do it—and I hope that is the experience.” For the juxtaposition of new and old, the tension between scientific and sensual aims, the love triangles, the bildungsroman of the first half and the mystery of the second, for the sense of a whole world in your hands—say yes.
Megan Labrise is a freelance writer and columnist based in New York. Follow her on Twitter.