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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.

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