Of all the fiction books I’ve read so far this year, I can honestly say Elizabeth Gilbert’s 2013 novel is my favorite. No, it’s not explicitly because Alma, the protagonist, has red hair (though it is a huge factor — let’s be honest).
With about half of the book read, I sat on my bed to read a couple of chapters and didn’t move until I had finished the book three hours later. Since then, I can’t seem to get any of the characters out of my head. It’s been awhile since I’ve had a book coma last this long. Nearly two weeks later, I’m finally reviewing this book.
“The Signature of All Things” spans the 18th and 19th centuries and follows the Whittaker family, led by poor-born Englishman Henry who finds fortune in the South American quinine trade. His daughter, Alma, becomes a botanist in her own right. Her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, and she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and draws her into spiritual realm.
Right from the first page, Gilbert maintained a narrative voice that harkened back to the writing styles of the 1800s. Now, I’m not talking extremely long-winded paragraphs (looking at you, Dickens). There were chapters devoted to character exposition, particularly Alma’s father Henry, and the use of language was almost Jane Austen-like. Given that most of the book takes place in the 1800s, this was the right narrative style. I don’t think it would have worked as well for her to have written in a modern voice.
Botany, exploration and science were at the heart of the narrative, and it reminded me of Andrea Barrett’s “Servants of the Map.” In the back of my mind, I’ve told myself that if I weren’t so invested in editing, I might’ve put more effort into more science and math courses (what my dad calls “real” classes). But one of the best things about being a writer (and a reader) is that you can explore so many areas, like botany, and weave it into the narrative.
But this novel was more than about Alma’s love of learning and botany. This book spanned her entire life, including a narrative on the life of her father, Henry. You read and grew with Alma as a person, from when her parents took Prudence in as a daughter to when she was the moss curator in Amsterdam. You learn that Dutch is the language of comfort for Alma, and since Prudence came to live with her family, she knew “she herself was not a pretty thing” (p. 75). Alma painfully struggled to connect with her adopted sister, and gave up many times throughout her life. It was only after Henry’s death that she was able to realize all her sister had done for her. Alma travels halfway across the world to Tahiti, chasing her grief and losing everything. Despite all of Alma’s shortcomings, you get to see her grow and overcome her weaknesses.
Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature — the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation — and it was the explanation for the entire world. It was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.
— p. 434
But as much as I love Alma, my biggest soft spot is for Ambrose. He is a wake-up call not only for Alma but also for the narrative. Alma, nearly 50, is a spinster running her father’s company while Henry grows older and weaker. Her friend received the most beautiful orchid impressions, and she endeavors to invite this Ambrose Pike to her home. Ambrose arrives to White Acre and breathes fresh air into Alma’s orderly life: “She had been sanguine. Contented. By all measures, it had been a good life. She could never return to that life now” (p. 225).
Ambrose brings out another side of Alma, a more open side. He tells her of the time he tried to be an angel, and that he had been inspired by Jakob Boehme’s writing to “swing into the fire.” Though she doubts Boehme and Ambrose’s spiritual beliefs, Alma opens herself up to Ambrose.
You bring me respite from my loneliness, as well,” Alma said. This was difficult for her to confess. She could not bear to look at him as she said it, but at least her voice did not waver.
— p. 234
They are a perfect couple. Alma and Ambrose. Even their names are alliterative. But it was not meant to be. They marry less than six months after Ambrose came to live at White Acre, but the marriage was not what Alma was expecting it to be. This was the second-most difficult section of the book for me to read (the most difficult part came later in the story and there were tears). Ambrose wanted a spiritual marriage without sex; Alma thought it would be the marriage she had always wanted and waited for.
I am not like other men, Alma. Can that honestly surprise you to learn, at this date?”
“What do you imagine you are, then, if not like other men?”
“It is not what I imagine I am, Alma — it is what I wish to be. Or rather, what I once was, and wish to be again.”
“Which is what, Ambrose?”
“An angel of God,” Ambrose said, in a voice of unspeakable sadness. “I had hoped we could be angels of God together. Such a thing would not be possible unless we were freed of the flesh, bound in celestial grace.”
— p. 278-279
This was when I full-heartedly stood behind Ambrose being asexual, though it is never outright stated. The reader is lead to assume for awhile that he might be gay, but I don’t think he is. Though I worry about what message this sends readers about asexuallity (if Gilbert were to confirm Ambrose is asexual). Just because someone isn’t sexually attracted to anyone and isn’t interested in sex doesn’t necessarily mean they make the leap to celestial being. That is a separate, Ambrose trait, not an asexual trait.
My heart ached when Alma banished him from White Acre, sending him to Tahiti. I wanted to jump inside the book and go with Ambrose, let him know that everything would be OK. Maybe I could prevent what would happen to him next. I imagined jumping into the book and confronting Alma, though I doubt she would listen to a word I had to say about Ambrose.
So for two weeks, I’ve had this book on my mind, and I doubt it will leave any time soon. Maybe the next few books I read will push it away temporarily. My roommate shared one of Gilbert’s Facebook statuses, which said that the book will be a PBS Masterpiece miniseries. At first, I was excited that this wonderful book would be adapted for the screen. But then I realized I didn’t want my vision of the characters and the book to be made into a series. Perhaps my mind will change once actors are cast and a trailer is released.
Whether I watch the miniseries or not, “The Signature of All Things” has been added to my list of books I must buy and read once a year, much like “Summers at Castle Auburn” by Sharon Shinn. Maybe I’ll write one or two essays about it and post them here. God knows I could at this point. It did take me two weeks to write this lengthy review. If you’re looking to read one of the books I’ve read so far this year, I’d start with this one.