After writing one of the most popular books of the past decade, Elizabeth Gilbert couldn’t be blamed if she decided to eat, pray and love her way through the rest of life without composing another paragraph.
Instead — with the whole literary world watching, and the schadenfreude set hoping for a stumble — she tackled “The Signature of All Things,” an ambitious, sprawling period novel requiring extensive scientific and historic research.
Whatever for? Because she is a self-described nerd.
“It’s my idea of fun,” Gilbert said of the book, published last fall to mostly great reviews and now out in paperback. “I just wanted to have a reason to spend three years in libraries. I can’t think of anything I’d rather do with my time.”
This time around, Gilbert’s bold, brainy heroine is a fictional early-19th-century botanist named Alma Whittaker who finds herself pulled between the righteous rigors of scientific exploration and heady romance with Ambrose Pike, an artist more inclined toward pursuits of the spirit and imagination. The story also plumbs the depths of female friendship and Gilbert’s love of travel, with locations stretching from Philadelphia to the South Pacific to Amsterdam.
The author, who will appear as a Talking Volumes guest at the Fitzgerald Theater on July 11, calls the book “a celebration of the freedom that ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ has brought me. I can afford to tackle a project like this without having to ask for assistance. Pitching a 500-page novel about a virgin who studies moss is not going to get a grant. So few people get the chance to bankroll their own passion, and I wasn’t about to go small.”
Speaking from her “skybrary” atop the Victorian house she shares with husband José Nunes — the “Felipe” she met on the last leg of her “EPL” sojourn — Gilbert said she was surrounded by boxes because the couple were about to move closer to the center of Frenchtown, the tiny, artsy New Jersey village where they live and run a Pan-Asian import emporium called Two Buttons.
“It seems that I move every time I finish a book,” she said.
Gilbert researched female botanists of the period, including Elizabeth Britton, who co-founded the New York Botanical Gardens with her husband. In that era, botany was the only science considered “feminine” enough for women to appropriately pursue. Reading the letters of Britton and others altered Gilbert’s belief that all Victorian women deferred to men.
“Britton was a real tiger,” she said. “She would take these guys on, challenge them, correct them. In one of her letters, a fellow botanist had sent her a species of moss he thinks he has discovered and wants to name after himself. She replied something like, ‘Do your research, my friend, I’ve got 20 of these in my cabinet already.’ ”
Gilbert explored her conflicting feelings about the concept of marriage in her EPL follow-up memoir, “Committed: A Love Story,” and marriage figures into “Signature,” as well. Alma, her adopted sister and another bestie all wed at some point, with mixed results.
“Female disappointment is deeply misunderstood in the literary world,” Gilbert said. “There’s this notion that women cannot endure it, that it kills them. But the reality is, they have a tremendous vulnerability to it, but also an equal if not greater potential for resilience. They create an emotional alchemy to turn it into wisdom, humor, grace. Alma might not get exactly what she wanted, but she made an interesting life for herself.”
Gilbert’s skill as a writer is borne out by how fascinating she makes moss seem: “Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. … A single clump of mosses can lie dormant and dry for forty years at a stretch, and then vault back again into life with a mere soaking of water.”
The book has no doubt inspired hundreds of gardeners to attempt to grow moss, as did Gilbert, finding it more difficult than she expected.
“Moss does not like to grow where it is not born, and, as Alma says, it’s not easy to get rid of it once it has settled in. It didn’t get to be the oldest plant on Earth by being an idiot. You can almost feel it looking up at you as if to say, ‘If I wanted to be here, I already would be.’ ”
Gilbert grew up on a Christmas tree farm in Connecticut with a sister who also grew up to be a writer, an engineer father, a nurse mother and no television set. Despite her own ambivalence toward what she calls “the marriage plot,” her parents, still together after 50 years, have a strong one.
“What makes a marriage work is when your core values intersect. My mom said that any day that goes by when you don’t touch the soil, you’re not really alive. My parents are eccentrics, but they weren’t hippies. They’re the only Republicans I know who made their own goat-milk yogurt. There’s great value to being raised by eccentrics. They never asked anyone’s permission to do whatever they wanted. They lived on their own terms.”
Gilbert describes the “Eat, Pray, Love” phenomenon — more than 10 million copies sold, a movie adaptation starring Julia Roberts — as “a lightning strike. It only happens once, and you can never know why. But I think, in talking with so many people who have read it, it was this giant permission slip. It’s amazing that even in this day and age there are a lot of women out there who never got the memo that their lives belong to them.”
Gilbert seemed to handle the “Eat, Pray, Loathe” backlash that followed the book’s runaway success with grace and just the right amount of detached bemusement.
“In defense of my critics, not everybody who hated it did so because they were jealous,” she said. “That’s just what we say when we’re trying to make ourselves feel better. When something takes up that much space in the culture, everyone feels forced to weigh in, including people the book was never meant for. It’s happening with ‘The Goldfinch’ right now. That’s when it’s a good idea to step away and let it play out.”
Gilbert has two upcoming projects germinating. One is a novel about the world of New York theater in the 1940s, the other a book about creativity, which she hints — with relish — is likely to butt up against more conventional views on the subject among the literati.
“I’m not in line with the devotion to German romanticism and torment that seems to be popular,” she said. “I don’t deny the reality of writers suffering, I just refuse to fetishize it as a legitimate badge of honor.”
At the end of “The Signature of All Things,” Alma expresses her belief that knowledge is the most precious of all commodities, and that she’s never felt the need to invent another world because the real one is quite enough. This belief only squares with part of Gilbert’s own outlook.
“I’m with her on this interesting world. The more you can learn of it, the better your life will be. But I have a lot of room in me for mystery and mysticism. It would have been disrespectful of me to impose that on Alma, an empirical scientist to the end. Me, I still have one foot with the fairies.”