FICTION: A brilliant 19th-century woman pursues understanding of the world through botany.
Writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s name is inexorably linked with “Eat, Pray, Love,” her 2006 globe-spanning memoir of self-discovery after a soul-shattering divorce. It has always outshone her less memorable works of nonfiction, a book of short stories and a first novel, “Stern Men,” published in 2000.
But now comes “The Signature of All Things,” a sophomore novel of grand proportions that will shine a light of lasting delight and approbation on Gilbert once again. This whimsically engaging and wonderfully imagined novel can only be called her most ambitious and most notable work yet.
“The Signature of All Things” is the story of Alma Whittaker, a Renaissance woman as humble as she is brilliant, a self-taught person of high intellect cloistered from the world thanks to her family’s considerable fortune and her seeming lack of interest in life outside her family’s home.
In 1808, the lawns of White Acre, the Whittakers’ Philadelphia estate, are transformed into a “model of the universe” with party guests acting out their roles as heavenly bodies: constellations, the sun, the planets and their moons. The heavens choreographed on the sweeping lawns take on “the appearance of the most strange and beautiful waltz,” and swirling through the midst of it all is the young Alma, who, in her role as a comet, isn’t bound to any elliptical pattern at all.
This lovely, evocative scene sets the stage for Alma’s amazing life. Like the heroine of “Eat, Pray Love,” Alma must seek her destiny through momentous travels, but not until she has spent more than 50 years at White Acre honing her skills as a botanist. She becomes closer to the moss species she chronicles than to the few human beings who orbit her life. That changes when she meets Ambrose, a believer in the teachings of Jacob Boehme.
Ambrose believes in what Boehme, a 16th-century writer, called “the signature of all things,” the belief that the natural world, by God’s design, holds the clues that will lead human beings to better, healthier and more enriched lives. It’s a mystical belief system the science-embracing Alma can’t abide. It’s the differences between Ambrose and Alma that will open the world to her in middle age when she sets off for Tahiti, an epic journey that takes her around the world and deep inside her soul’s fire.
In language as lovely as the horticultural marvels she so picaresquely describes, Gilbert’s “Signature of All Things” will take root in the imagination of its readers. It’s a joyous reminder of the unlimited paths we’re offered in life.
Carol Memmott’s reviews have appeared in USA Today and People magazine.