Friday, December 26, 2014

The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, a woman born in 1800 into a wealthy Philadelphia family. Her father Henry rose from poverty in England to prominence in the United States by figuring out how to make money through trade in exotic plants. The family home has gardens and greenhouses rivaling those of long-established European botanical gardens.

Alma, whose homeliness and large size Gilbert emphasizes repeatedly, is exceptionally bright and begins gathering botanical knowledge and developing her skills with a microscope at an early age. But when her beautiful but distant adopted sister Prudence marries an abolitionist schoolteacher and the man Alma loved married her mentally unstable friend Retta, Alma retreats to decades of intensive study of moss (and masturbation in a closet). When her mother dies, she adds management of her father's business affairs to her tasks.

Then she encounters an exceptional botanical artist, Ambrose Pike, and the two instantly become close friends, but things do not work out as either had hoped. Following the death of her father, Alma embarks on a journey to Tahiti. She develops "Theory of Competitive Alteration" to explain how species evolve. When she makes her way to Europe, her uncle, the head of a Dutch botanical garden, urges her to publish her paper explicating the theory, but she does not, worried that it does not explain altruism in humans, as exemplified by Prudence. When Darwin publishes The Origin of the Species, she takes it as validation of her work.

The Signature of All Things made many "best of 2013" lists, and there is much to admire in Gilbert's work. One can only imagine the extent of the research required to write knowledgeably about a range of botanical and broader scientific topics. Gilbert captures the tone of the 19th century in her writing style and conveys well the numerous challenges that a woman who wished to be a scientist faced in that era. Alma Whittaker, while fictional, must represent untold numbers of women who toiled unacknowledged in the scientific world. All of this notwithstanding, I found the book somewhat tedious--it's much too long and, at least for this reader, packed with too much botanical detail. While plant life and the scientific domain are well described (perhaps too well), the individual peoplein the story often act in inexplicable ways. Perhaps their motivations arise from a spiritual domain that I do not appreciate, but I found many decisions made by Alma and others unrealistic. Overall, I would recommend the book for people interested in botany or female scientists, but not for more casual readers. And I recognize most reviewers saw the book much more positively.

Favorite passages:
There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain become so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy.

All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge had been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history--added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.

No comments:

Post a Comment