In Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, the botanist-heroine is initiated into an old belief that all natural objects are imprinted with messages from God; the red markings on a particular plant, for example, signify its usefulness for blood ailments. The idea that meaning is to be found in the material, rather than in the spiritual or intellectual realms, recurs throughout this richly textured historical saga. But the book’s own hard facts – plot and characterization – are contorted to support abstract themes.
The story centres on the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of Henry Whittaker, an illiterate Englishman who makes a fortune importing botanical plants before settling with his Dutch wife in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, young Alma develops a passion for plants and is happy until the arrival of a beautiful adopted sister makes her aware of her homeliness. Later, suffering from unrequited love, Alma finds a purpose in the study of mosses, which she lyrically evokes as “resurrection machines” because they endure near-extinction and regenerate other species.
Gilbert sets her well-researched and frequently funny tale in a time – not unlike our own – of great debate about the natural and social environment. Her colourful characters exemplify the warring tendencies of the age. The ruthless Henry Whittaker begins his career by stealing rare plant specimens from a baronet, then scalping them to foreign buyers. By contrast, the young mystic, Ambrose Pike, whom Alma falls in love with and marries in her late 40s, prefers poverty over riches and makes scatty references to “swinging into the fire.” Their illusive acquaintance lasts only months; after it becomes clear he will never sleep with her, Alma packs Ambrose off to the family vanilla plantation in Tahiti, where he dies of mysterious causes. The serious scientist loses “the thread of her life’s purpose,” and travels to Tahiti to “fit together the story of Ambrose Pike.”
Nothing in her union with Ambrose justifies so drastic a change, and it all seems a plot device to get her to Tahiti. If we are reluctant to go with her, it is partly because Alma’s decision follows upon a contrived “I-have-been-so-selfish-all-my-life” epiphany that results in her giving away most of her fortune. It is also because we were content exploring the humble life of a pioneering female botanist. This ambitious book wants to be so many things: an investigation into the heart and sexuality of an unconventional woman; a vindication of neglected women of science; a Thackerayesque panorama of an age; a novel of ideas; a paean to the resilience of nature. The style varies widely. On occasion the author parodies the excesses and ignorance of European colonialism: Whittaker’s baronet is a man who “kept a heathen as a pet.” At other times the narrative voice is wordy, introspective. Alma is the only constant, and her motivation at key moments is not credible.
In Tahiti, Alma immerses herself in local life and begins an obsessive search for someone she guesses was her husband’s lover. She discovers that he is a magnetic Tahitian missionary named Tomorrow Morning who dresses impeccably, and whose “skin was dark and burnished, his smile a slow moonrise.” He also happens to be a hypnotic orator, and urges his people to adapt to a new era. In a supernaturally mossy cave to which he has led Alma, this Tahitian Obama reveals the details of her husband’s demise. Alma’s grief, like her drive to understand Ambrose, seems excessive. After the disclosure, Alma fellates Tomorrow Morning, “as though drawing breath through him.” The stunned reader can only digest this scene as symbolic. Moss, resurrection machine, Tomorrow Morning, new era, drawing breath: we get it. But we don’t get Alma, who – after triumphing in a brutal Tahitian survival game – speeds off to her uncle’s place in Holland to work on a theory resembling Darwin’s (Darwin arrives at it first). Earlier in the book, she is a real woman with real emotions studying real plants, but by the end she is a wild priestess of natural selection.
If this is a novel of ideas, the ideas are shallow; if this is fictional biography, the main character does not hang together; if this is a call to arms to present-day Americans, it ought to have had a simpler and tighter plot. The author seems to want to convey a message more than to write fiction. Fortunately Gilbert’s wit and inventiveness make the attempt to figure out just what she is doing more of a frustrating pleasure than a pain.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer living in Montreal.