Monday, March 9, 2015

Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things

All right, here’s your assignment. In as few or many words as you need, please explain to me why Alice Walker told her audience at the San Miguel Writers Conference that Elizabeth Gilbert’s THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a “wonderful” book. Please. I’m serious.

The first hundred pages read as if Gilbert had come across some botany books and wanted to make sure she stuffed every single fact they contained into this novel. Amongst the botanical esoterica are sketches of the 19th century Whittaker family: the crude, low-born patriarch who has made a fabulous fortune in botanical pharmaceuticals; his stolid Dutch wife, Beatriz; and their only surviving child, Alma. Alma is a large, homely, awkward girl who grows up to be a large, homely, awkward but accomplished botanist, the author of several well-received scholarly books.

Then there’s Prudence, neé Polly, an incredibly beautiful child, whose father, a worker on the Whittaker estate, has murdered his wife and killed himself. She is taken into the Whittaker’s stately home, not as a
servant or even as a ward. Rather, she is given the Whittaker name and presented to Alma as her new sister. (And, no, it doesn’t turn out that she’s really the illegitimate child of pater familias.)

... please explain to me why Alice Walker told her audience ... THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a “wonderful” book. Please. I’m serious.

When Alma is sixteen, she is given the task of sorting through the trunks of books that are arriving almost daily as her father buys up the libraries of wealthy families who have come on hard times. Some of the books are on the subject of sex and so enflame Alma that she must retire daily (if not several times a day) to pleasure herself in a tiny closet with a sturdy lock.

Two years later, Alma falls in love with a botanical printer, George Hawkes, but he loves Prudence, who loves him back but, since she knows Alma loves him, refuses his offer of marriage and instead marries a school teacher she doesn’t love in hopes that George will then turn to Alma (are you following this?). But George instead rushes into marriage with their friend, Etta Snow, who, many chapters later, is committed to an insane asylum.

George is preparing to print and publish a series of lithographs of the orchids of Mexico and Guatemala by an artist named Ambrose Pike. Alma invites Pike to come to the Whittaker estate and promptly falls in love with him. Pike, who is much younger than she, is a spiritualist, perhaps a mystic, who adheres to the theory propounded by Jacob Boehme, that God has hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower and plant – “the signature of all things.” In a spell of what may have been madness, Pike claims to have seen this signature, as well as angels and auras.

He convinces her to take him into the locked closet where, in absolute darkness, they will “speak” to each other only with their thoughts. The mere fact that they are holding hands in the dark leads her to a climax. She “hears” his thought that he wants this sensuality from her. A month later they are married. It’s then that she discovers that the thought he was sending her was that he wanted an entirely chaste marriage. He is horrified by her advances. She banishes him to Tahiti to manage her family’s vanilla plantation where, three years later, he dies of a fever.

Eventually, his valise is returned to her. In it, she finds a series of drawings which Ambrose has made of a beautiful, naked and aroused young man. So, after giving her entire inheritance to her sister Prudence to be used for a school for Black children and the work of the Abolitionist Society, she goes off to Tahiti to find The Boy, as she calls him. Turns out he is the adopted son of an English missionary and is now himself a charismatic preacher known as “Tomorrow Morning.” And, yes indeed, he has, as he puts it so delicately, coupled with Ambrose who has thereafter expressed his grief by cutting off several fingertips and gashing his forehead with a knife, leading to the infection that killed him.

So Alma, now an old woman by nineteenth century standards, spends the night out in the open with Tomorrow Morning and is allowed by him to put various of his body parts into her mouth:
“This act was the one thing in her life she had ever really wanted to do. She had given up so much, and she had never complained – but could she not, at least once, have this? She did not need to be married. She did not need to be beautiful, or desired by men. She did not need to be surrounded by friends or frivolity. She did not need an estate, a library, a fortune. There was so much that she did not need. She did not even need to have the unexplored terrain of her ancient virginity excavated at long last, at the wearisome age of fifty-three – though she knew Tomorrow Morning would oblige her, had she wished.”
Having now been granted “the one thing in her life she had ever really wanted to do,” she leaves Tahiti, writes a paper about her theory of transmutation in nature, goes to Amsterdam where she is taken in by her mother’s family and becomes curator of mosses at the Hortus Botanicus there. Her uncle urges her to publish her paper but she holds back because she cannot apply it fully to humans: she cannot see the biological point of altruism – how does it help to insure the survival of the altruistic one and his lineage? Charles Darwin then publishes his famous book which contains ideas similar to hers so that she never receives recognition for her work on the subject.

Everybody dies.  The end.

Yes, the mosses are metaphors. Yes, the names are significant: Alma (“soul” in Spanish); Prudence; Hawkes; Pike. Yes, the discussion of altruism harks back to the altruistic acts of each of the sisters. Yes, the author has obviously done lots and lots and lots of research. But after slogging through all 499 pages, I found it hard to care.


  1. Congratulations for sticking to the end of a book that seems a bit off kilter. I wouldn't have made it through the first 50 pages. Some people, obviously Alice Walker, enjoys botany more than a facinating story. It's difficult to believe she also wrote, "Eat, Pray, Love."

    Years ago I read the six book series, "The Clan of the Cave Bear," by Jean Auel. The first half of the first book totally fascinated me with geology, Neanderthals & Cro-Magnons, flora and fauna, & prehistoric survival. All of the books were heavy with descriptions of every little thing & I found that fascinating. Many people couldn't get through the mire to the story...although I doubt the story was as depressing as Gilbert's.

    At any rate what makes a novel good to some is what destroys it for others. But Gilbert's novel has 993 reviews on Amazon of which 887 are 4 & 5 star. I sit shaking my head.

  2. Thanks for this thoughtful response. After reading it, I went to the Amazon site to check out the 887 glowing reviews. What's interesting is that there appear to be very few "in the middle" comments -- readers either think the book's the best thing since Tabasco and sliced bread or, as one reviewer said, "this goes in my toss overboard pile." Of course, as you point out, there are many more favorable reviews than unfavorable ones -- possibly because the people who didn't much like it are still in a corner trying to poke their eyes out with a sharp stick. (I didn't really say that, did I? Somebody slap me silly!)

    1. That could be true! But it seems that when I want to write a review it's either because I loved the book or hated it. If it was just so-so I'm not inclined to review it.

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