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The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things By Elizabeth Gilbert Viking, 2013 Elizabeth Gilbert is the author of the best-selling Eat, Pray, Love, a most unusual memoir about the loss of a marriage, travel, and spiritual acceptance. Signature of All Things is a novel. Turning from non-fiction to fiction is not easy for most writers, yet Gilbert links profound ideas in each of these very different books. The Signature of All Things follows Alma Whittaker, a woman born in 1800. That date is significant, because the revolutionary ideas of the nineteenth century made the world we know today. The discovery of evolution transformed our notion of the universe. Never one to shy away from big themes, Gilbert tackles this one in a page-turning story. Alma’s father was an employee of Joseph Banks, the famous botanist of The Enlightenment. That is backstory to the novel, which starts in Philadelphia with Alma’s birth. Her father had immigrated there, and made a fortune in plant pharmaceuticals. Alma is a precocious child who learns the latest botanical theories at the dinner table of her father. Botany was the only science allowed for respectable girls in the nineteenth century, because plants, unlike animals, do not frolic in unseemly ways, do not engage in uninhibited sex. Or so it was thought. But plants, as we now know, do reproduce in all sorts of ways, and the riotous abundance of their existence is due to evolution. Alma discovers much by studying mosses. And this is Gilbert’s brilliant conceit. By restricting her heroine to her culture’s corset (waiting, as quietly as possible, for a man to “liberate” her into wifedom) Gilbert has forced her protagonist to focus her mind on something that apparently does nothing. By observing closely, Alma discovers something no one else has ever seen. A woman looking at moss does not involve much action. But Gilbert is too skilled a story-teller to let our attention flag. The book abounds with original, extraordinary, characters. In the second half of her life and the novel Alma travels the world, becoming for a while the rolling stone of the proverb. Gilbert has layered meaning upon meaning in choosing moss, that emblem of stasis, as her heroine’s intellectual passion. Revelations can come by simple observation – by concentrating on minute detail. That’s science. Then there is the spiritual dimension that stillness enhances. Meditation – the idea that by focusing on an inner stillness one develops a sense of being connected to the entire universe– is one that links this novel to Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. If you liked that book, you’ll love this one.

Three Novels About Being Foreign

Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie Alfred A. Knopf  2013 The Saffron Kitchen by Yasmin Crowther Penguin Group USA 2006 The Outsider by Patricia Gercik CreateSpace. 2014 With refugees in the news these days, I have been reading novels about the experience of being a foreigner. It’s never easy to straddle two world views, different ways of being and thinking. Is it possible for someone to ever truly assimilate in a new land? I am not really sure, and I, as an immigrant to this country, have been here far longer than I have lived anywhere else. How much harder it will be for the millions of displaced refugees who are coming to Europe already traumatized by war. Lately I have been reading three very different books about three very different immigrant experiences. The first is Americanah by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie. Published  in 2013 and named one of the ten best books of the year, the story features two protagonists, Ifemelu and Obinze, Nigerian teenagers who fall in love but separate when Ifemelu goes to the United States to study, and Obinze tries to start a new life in England. Fifteen years later, they reunite in Nigeria, where they find their experience of  early adulthood in different countries have profoundly changed them. Or have they? I was not convinced that they had. Each character maintains his or her essential personality throughout the novel, with Ifemelu seeming to hold herself superior to others. She sees racial discrimination even in people who are kind to her. Obinze seems to be the moral heart of the book, troubled by the choices he has had to make in a corrupt society. The next book is The Saffron Kitchen, by Yasmin Crowther. It was published in the USA by Penguin Group in 2006, having first been issued in the UK that same year. Crowther is the daughter of an Iranian mother and a British father, which lends authenticity to the story. The novel is structured so that we hear alternate voices of Sara, a thirty something woman whose father is English and whose mother is Maryam, a woman born in a remote village in Iran. The book starts with a violent episode initiated by Maryam, an episode which causes a split with her daughter and spurs Maryam’s return to Iran. Maryam explains that when she was young, to show weakness meant she would be punished. Her punishment for defying her father’s demand that she marry instead of studying nursing is hinted at early on in the book, and revealed shockingly at the end. For whatever reason ( probably to do with Persian food, which I love) I have always been fascinated by Iran, its people and its history. Because Iran is much in the news these days, I read this book to get some insights into the country. The picture painted by the novel shows that Iranian values, even in the nineteen seventies, just before the fall of the Shah, were jarringly different from Western mores. Persian culture as portrayed in this book is much less recognizable than that of Nigeria as written by Adiche. Finally, I am reading The Outsider, but Patricia Gercik. Set in Japan in 1946, 1952 and 1958, this story shows Japan undergoing profound change after its World War II defeat. The narrator is Sarah, a child, six years old when the book begins. She is the daughter of Russian Jews who fled Stalin to China and eventually to Japan during World War II. During the Occupation by the allied powers after the war Japanese society was being utterly transformed. Black marketers and geisha girls, macho Japanese men who still dream of a mighty conquering Japan are contrasted with the sufferings of the ordinary people. White-skinned, blue eyed Sara wants desperately to belong, and finds herself attracted to a ragtag group of Japanese urchins rather than to the Western children who attend the US Army’s school. She is eternally the outsider, loved yet not understood by her parents, who seem to symbolize the eternally exiled, loved yet punished for disobedience by the housekeeper, O’ba, alternately loved and scorned by her Japanese playmates. Throughout the novel, Sarah insists that she is stubborn, and she is certainly bright. Yet, always wanting to belong, she swings from one loyalty to the next. At one point in the novel, Sensei, a key figure in the story, says, “Japanese are emotional, not logical….Disputes are settled outside the courts through relationships. That is the Japanese way.” This sounds so appealing, and yet it sums up the difficulties of foreigners in that culture. By choosing the tell the story in the voice of a child, Gercik avoids the cliche that children adjust to new circumstances easily. Never sentimental or sugar-coating the hardship of life between cultures, this is a remarkable and unusual book. Highly recommended.