21 December 2016

Elizabeth Gilbert: The Signature of All Things

I rarely love fiction. Give me a memoir, an essay collection, or a
true story over something made-up any day. I picked this up because I was going through a phase where I was deeply in love with Elizabeth Gilbert as an author and I remember being scared to read it when I got it, thinking that reading her fiction may 'ruin' her for me somehow. The New York Times even wrote, "If ever a book were doomed to birth in a suffocating caul of expectations, this is it," so... I ended up loving it. Just writing about it over a year after I actually read it makes me obsess about it all over again.

I went through a phase in my early 20's where I loved Elizabeth Gilbert. Didn't we all? I read Eat Pray Love (2006) and then quickly followed with the sequel Committed (2010) and for a while the themes in these books were all I could talk about. I may blog about Committed at a later date but I have mixed feelings about it now. Very recently, Gilbert left the man she met on her Eat Pray Love journey for her best friend and it kind of makes me feel like all the preachy stuff that literally fueled me from Eat Pray Love and Committed was a sham? I know people grow and change. I also know she's just an author and I can't put her on a pedestal, but I can't help but feel a bit cheated. Anyways... rant over... back to The Signature of All Things...

The plot of this book is so amazing I almost can't believe someone just thought it up... fiction amazes me. It follows a female named Alma in the 1800's who is raised by a botanist (which they had no word for at that time) who builds an empire on pharmaceutical plants. Gilbert is not subtle about making sure we know Alma is not cute.

"It did not help that Alma herself believed she was unlovely. She believed this only because she had been told it so many times, and in so many different ways. Most recently, the news of her homeliness had come straight from her father....” 

Alma basically lives her life depressed that nobody will love her but she is incredibly smart and devotes herself entirely to botany where she becomes an esteemed scientist in her father's footsteps. She does end up marrying later in life but the guy is a homosexual and just wants a domestic partnership. Alma heavily focuses on mosses for her research (and let me tell you I was VERY into botany during the time in my life I was reading this) and develops the theory that eventually becomes Darwin's theory of natural selection. 

Alma spends years developing this theory. It's based on the fact that certain species and qualities will out-survive others based on adaptability (aka natural selection). She refuses to publish it because she can't get past human altruism: humans are willing to sink themselves for the benefit of others, going against her theory. 

“Not everything has an answer.” Alma found this to be such a staggering piece of intelligence that she was struck dumb by it for several hours. All she could do was sit and ponder the notion in an amazed stupor.”

I love the connection in the book between Alma's theory of mosses and her own life. She competes her whole childhood with her beautiful, adopted sister Prudence by trying to consume as much knowledge as she can in hopes that being educated will give her a leg up. I also love some of the passages about grief: 

“There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain becomes 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.”  

“One must bear what cannot be escaped," she told Alma, as she rubbed clean her face. "You will not die of your grief - no more than the rest of us ever have.”

In one passage, Alma is so deeply depressed that she'll never find love but realizes she has an entire lifetime of work just in the amount of moss on one rock alone, and feels her life has purpose again. Its very interesting to read from the perspective of a female character who believes being a scientific expert is somehow secondary to having love and a family. It's so different from the way things are now but also weirdly the same.

I would definitely recommend this book to any serious fiction reader. If you're into more light, cutesy fiction you probably won't get into this. If you're like me and prefer non-fiction, I also think you'd probably like this book because the subject matter is so interesting. It is quite long but the writing is so good and you get so invested that it doesn't even matter. My favourite line/part ever is when Alma goes to Tahiti and wonders if there's any place in the world where her hair would not be considered a "tragedy"... this is my life also. I am Alma.

No comments:

Post a Comment