(Today I'm reviewing Elizabeth Gilbert's (Eat, Pray, Love) new historical epic, The Signature of All Things.)
It’s obvious that Elizabeth Gilbert best known for her “first eat good food, then find a good guru, then find a good boyfriend,” book of recovery is going in a different direction with her latest. The Signature of All Things is a long, astonishingly researched historical about extreme individuals who do extreme things against a backdrop of - botany! Think moss. I don’t mean to sound snarky because this epic took talent and hard work and a huge leap of faith to produce. Some of the language is exquisite: “She felt a deep bruise of absence for her father.” is a sentence that could only come from a writer that is giving us her best. First I thought well, Elizabeth is writing a fabulous story of deprivation and wealth and plant life as a sound and grand metaphor for life. If I’m smart enough, I’ll get it.
A serious look into 1800's Philadelphia grandeur was not what I was expecting from Elizabeth Gilbert. Is this good or bad? I don’t know. The beginning of this book is a quick set-up of the type that Jeffrey Archer did in Kane and Abel - very poor boy gets a foothold into a life that catapults him through happenstance, suffering and cunning into untold riches and power. That’s okay with me. I like a story that moves along as long as I care about the eventual outcome. Once fame and fortune are accomplished, the storytelling slows down to introduce the real main character, Alma, a gifted brainiac, raised by the tiger mother of all tiger mothers. This tiger permits no frivolities, not even unkind thoughts. She instills an ethic of hard work that defines her daughter’s life. At times it consumes her life.
Is it a love story? Yes, but not in any ordinary sense. Gilbert is going for transcendence. Transcendence but still on earth - now it is clear why we have entered a religious order where plants lead us to the altar of the most high. And about the moss - Alma got me to fall in love with moss and Moss Time.
I had the benefit of reading a lengthy profile of the author in the New York Times Magazine that spoke of Gilbert’s process to settle on this project and her research for it. It did not prepare me for Alma, the main character. Alma’s emotions and ambitions and rigidity are not usual in popular fiction. Yet the outcome of her arduous journey to self-knowledge rings true and satisfies.