Book Review: The Signature of All Things [by Elizabeth Gilbert]

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Had I known that Elizabeth Gilbert had written Eat Pray Love, I probably wouldn’t have bought this book. In fact, I don’t really know how I managed to miss it, it is on the cover. I saw the title while buying second-hand books and remembered seeing it in a couple bookstores. And as part of a thing I’m working on to read at least half the books I buy, well…

That said, while this book is about 500-odd pages, I don’t really have much to say about it. Specifically, I don’t have much to say about it that is flattering. This might be a bit of a scattered review.

The Signature of All Things is about the life of botanist Alma Whittaker, born in the year 1800, growing up in Philadelphia on the sprawling estate of her rags-to-riches opportunist father, Henry Whittaker. Neither Henry nor his wife Beatrix are particularly likeable people; we still hear a lot about them though because it is nearly 500 pages after all. Alma’s life, from childhood to old age, is tracked in some detail – her remarkably scientific mind, her relationships with men, her adopted sister, and so on. As an adult she becomes fascinated with mosses and researches and pens books on bryology, and that becomes the trajectory of her career in botany.

Although I haven’t summarised it very excitingly, a lot does happen in this book, although I wouldn’t say exciting is the word for it. I appreciate Gilbert’s attempt to spotlight women in science, but I don’t think of it as a feminist novel (as she has suggested in interviews) by any means.

There’s something a little too familiar about the novel, at times I just felt like I was reading another rehashed period-piece-drama with science thrown in. When you write in a certain time period, you can take liberties with regard to race and gender, you can write what you want and wave it off as ‘this character believes that’. So while I have no doubt that Gilbert doesn’t espouse the beliefs/points of view of her characters, I find novels these days using that technique too frequently (and this isn’t an objection to Gilbert’s novel in specific, it’s just something I’ve been thinking about). Gilbert does frequently discuss sexuality, so I don’t see why her narrative voice isn’t further present to provide a foil to a lot of the conservative ideas flying around (and I’m not just talking about local abolitionists, but also the view towards different races, etc; but this is a small complaint, definitely nitpicking here). That said, if we’re talking about Gilbert’s narrative voice…well. I’ve seen it praised as beautiful in several places, and I have no doubt that it has the capacity to be. I think a few scenes  she wrote worked very well, but at times the narrative seemed very contrived. She would often discuss something very highbrow and serious only to follow it up with some strange affirmative or negative in brackets with an exclamation mark. It was a bit like switching to Enid Blyton and being addressed as a kid. Gilbert is American, and I’m assuming she was trying to affect a British voice, but the inconsistencies in tone really made me cringe.

Gilbert makes an effort to discuss sexuality in women, which I appreciate (although I was kind of squicked out for most of it). The way in which she did sometimes bordered on the absurd though, and it’s lucky for me that discussing it further would give away some plot. I’m happy to not discuss it further. I’d rather forget about it all together. I think the whole theme could’ve been handled much better.

With regard to other characters in the novel, I have nothing much to say about Prudence (Alma’s sister) but Retta Snow, their friend, who shows up briefly in the novel and reoccurs…she just felt like such a stereotype. I don’t know whether Gilbert was deliberately somewhat using the ‘manic pixie dream girl’ trope, but most of her storyline was just…unnecessary, and seemed to be playing into a lot of the 18th century stereotypes about ‘hysterical’ women, rather than subverting them. And I’m not quite sure what to say about the man Alma meets in Tahiti. Without giving too much away, that also felt like it was dangerously close to the ‘magical black mentor’ trope. And the whole bit where they trekked up to the cave and…well, if you read it, and you don’t want to bleach the weirdness of it from your brain, congratulations. I definitely do.

But really my biggest issue with the book, and the issue I struggle to articulate, is the way Gilbert talks about Alma’s appearance. She’s called “ugly”, she’s called “mannish”. She’s big-limbed and tall and clearly everyone in the book, including Alma herself, has nothing positive to say about how she looks. The concept of the subjectivity of beauty is totally inconceivable to anyone. As per Alma, her father, and even, I’d go as far as to say, the author, no one will ever be attracted to her. It’s impossible right? Seems impossible. If you’re ugly (however someone defines that) no one will want you. Look, I get it, I don’t read books to learn anything. Fiction isn’t teaching us to be good people. A lot of fiction today is about messed up people and their messed up morals, but if you’re writing in the 21st century, surely you could make an effort. It’s not that hard to figure out the context in which you’re writing, and the way women are scrutinised for their appearance in this age, the way they’re dismissed for not meeting societal standards of ‘attraction’ (again, whatever that is). The way Gilbert obsesses over Alma’s so-called ‘ugliness’, and does absolutely nothing to problematise or complicate the concept is counter-productive. That is not a feminist move.

I’ve no doubt that a great deal of research went into this book. Henry Whittaker’s travels and Alma’s own voyage from her home to Tahiti, and then to Holland are rendered in great detail. And I’m happy and eager to read more fiction about women in science, but I felt that Alma’s own achievements were a little lost in the novel. I know a lot of people liked this book, I wouldn’t not recommend it. A few chapters in, it already felt like something I’d read before. I had to slog through the whole thing. Sometimes something just isn’t for you.

Know what also isn’t for me? Work of any kind. Which is why this muddled-up review is going up even though I don’t really have much to say.

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