I’m not entirely certain what I expected to find in Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel, The Signature of All Things. It sounds like it should be something philosophical, looking at the world from every perspective and showing how everything is connected. It looks like it should be a treatise of sorts, something deeply profound and worldly. It looks like it should be profound and touching.
…And it’s all of these things, and yet not in any of the ways I expected.
The story of Alma Whittaker starts in her father’s youth, from his low beginning of thievery and fighting his way up tooth and nail to achieve his dreams. He is a hard-working man, and does not allow anyone to tell him ‘no.’ I’ve had bad luck with books which tell stories in this way—starting far before the main protagonists steps in—but this book does it right…and for the longest while, I couldn’t figure out why.
It’s not until a fifth of the way through the book before we meet Alma as anything but a newborn infant, and after having seen her father for some sixty-odd pages, we see how much her father’s daughter she is. She has the drive, the intelligence, the skills. Just as nothing is handed to Alma in life, nothing is truly handed to the reader for information. We find out what Alma is like vicariously; we see how she is taught, what she focuses it, what she emphasizes. The use of a limited third-person narrator makes it easy to see the leans in her personality. For example, Gilbert writes this as Alma is being taken off likely to be scolded: “Alma felt tears coming, but forced her tears to halt, and then to halt again, and then to halt once more.” It is difficult to show a more elegant way of showing a young girl fighting back tears she knows she shouldn’t be shedding. She is perfectly controlled and precise.
Until she isn’t anymore. A young girl’s curiosity and love of books gets the best of her, and suddenly her life is flipped on her head. Gilbert captures the compelling nature of it perfect, by having Alma fascinated—and then shut the book, and swear to never read it again. The next sentence begins with her opening the book again—and this goes on for three or four times.
It is then that drive that pushes Alma through the rest of the book, a regard for the rules but a fascination with the resistance—a calling to the light but being transfixed by the dark. She becomes engrossed in botany, her father’s field, and allows it to consume her, much as it did her father. Through it all, bits and pieces of the rest of the world attempts to join her, affect her, or move her, and until it is of her own accord, Alma Whittaker stays firm. It isn’t until her heart is well and truly broken that she tries to find her way somewhere else…and even then, she is the driving force.
The book is relatively long and filled with details of people and places that, while fascinating, I could not quite place why I needed to know any of it. The thought of “how is this book accomplishing this” and “why did we hear all of Henry Whittaker’s life” did not diminish through most of the book. However, in the last final chunk of the book, it all slowly came full circle. The title of the book, the in-depth look into everything Alma or her life touches, the fascination with every tiny detail…the book seemed to have become a metaphor for itself. Alma spends her entire life buried nose-deep in the dirt of mosses, cataloguing and dissecting and studying. She is a botanist, a scientist—and they are not a field known for generalizations, Alma foremost. And that was precisely what the book did. It was a scientific study of Alma and her life, making sure to explain every detail of how and why this person grew to be the one she did. There was no room for deviation because even the smallest detail could change everything, just like a different amount of sunlight or water for a plant. Crazy Retta Snow, poor misguided Ambrose Pike, a strict father and sterner mother, a maid for comfort who wasn’t much softer than the parents she replaced, a cold-as-ice and hard-as-diamond sister…each of these formed through their every action the person Alma was to become, and as such, how could any of them be left out?
It’s a fascinating turn around, and a perfect one for a book of its name. Just as Alma stands to recognize the “signature of all things,” so does the reader through her. In many ways, Alma proves her own theory by her existence, though as any subject, she cannot use the information of herself well enough to study.
Gilbert’s writing is fascinating all the way through, from the touching to the serious to the comical—I cannot escape the hilarity and blush-worthy scenes in the binding closet, nor the description of “this pale, waving sea-creature” for a man’s penis any more than I can forget the stunning description of Tomorrow Morning as “[H]is skin was dark and burnished, his smile a slow moonrise” or the breathtaking sentence of “[W]hat a stark and stunning thing was like—that such a cataclysm can enter and depart so quickly, and leave such wreckage behind!” She has a way with words that has you hanging onto each of them until she has finished with you, but does not drop you at the end. She can break your heart through Ambrose only to piece it back together with Tomorrow Morning. She can use the diamond that is Prudence both to wound and confuse, both to soothe and to scorn. Just as human nature, no character is perfect and no flaw is glossed over. Each and every person has a consequence and a reaction…and they aren’t treated as problems, merely challenges to be met.
It may have taken me the whole book to get it, but I’m glad that I did—and much like Retta Snow, there are times that it can be “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction,” but it is a wonderful book and very much one worth investing the time in to read.