My reading tastes lean toward biographies and classic novels rather than contemporary bestsellers. I can’t stand a movie like Coyote Ugly. And I wasn’t going to read Eat, Pray, Love simply because of my physique—it’s hard to relate to someone needing to travel to Italy to eat pizza and pasta for the main purpose of gaining weight. Never gonna happen to me.
As you might guess the creator of those two works, Elizabeth Gilbert, is not in my reading circle and I didn’t expect to put any of her books on my “want to read” list.
So it was through happenstance—a free ticket to hear her talk and a borrowed copy of The Signature of All Things—that forced me to step outside my normal reading box.
As a narrator, Gilbert is a bit heavy-handed, but she’s got a confident voice with an excellent command of language and imagery. Her style is too verbose at times—three similes where one would do fine. Yet I often found myself admiring her firm hand as a storyteller. The thread of ideas, the history and deep-dive into botany, biology, and the psyche of an inquisitive intellect give the story a rich feel. Which is a real feat considering the main character, Alma Whitaker, is dull of face, thick of body, and has a sharp but unimaginative mind.
Born in the late eighteenth century, half English, half Dutch, Alma grows up in a small, but prosperous Pennsylvania family. Living a largely cerebral life as her father’s companion in his botany trade, it is only late in life (post menopausal) when she meets Ambrose Pike. He’s much younger than her and while there’s an instant connection between them, the attraction is unbalanced. The failure of their relationship is what drives the plot forward.
It was the sexual element Gilbert wove into the story that caught me by surprise. I’m not a prude by any stretch but the self-gratification of her main character was creepy, and the word quim was especially disturbing for some reason. The homosexuality was awkward too. None of it felt authentic to me.
Perhaps it’s because Gilbert couldn’t quite eliminate the 21st century sensibility in her narrator’s voice. Or perhaps it’s because the women of science and exploration that I’ve read about all seemed to lack a strong sexual side. I might have mistakenly assumed it’s necessary to be a scientist first and a woman second to be successful in the world of scientific study. My personal bias didn’t want to give room to Alma’s sensual side. This was probably more my fault than Gilbert’s.
The story ends in Amsterdam in a form of reconciliation with her mother’s family whom Alma never knew. The ending is inventive and provocative, culminating in Alma playing a hidden role in the discovery of natural selection. This is the twist in the story that was particularly satisfying to me. It’s so true that women have been and continue to be an unseen force behind the exploration and discovery of science and nature. Many of the important advances of man stand on the shoulders of a woman’s work. Rosalind Franklin and the structure of DNA is an example from recent history.
This is why The Signature of All Things played to one of my fondest musings—that there’s a trove of unknown women explorers, adventurers, scientist and true lovers of knowledge out there just waiting to be discovered.
And, what’s really amazing is that the same author responsible for a fluff piece such as Coyote Ugly produced an interesting novel about an intelligent, pragmatic virgin.
Step outside your box. You might just discover something new about yourself.