In the past couple of years, I started making attempts to break away from my regular diet of sci-fi novels and biographies, take a few more ‘risks’ with my leisure reading options, specifically towards material with a bit more literary heft. I was trying to recreate the joy I experienced at the end of 2017 when I read Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Sebastian Barry’s Days Without End back to back. Another reason was that I just wasn’t coming across that many enjoyable scifi books any more. To help me broaden my intake, I started reading through the New York Times weekly recommendations, which has the additional benefit of having the reviews written by other writers, thereby giving me exposure to the reviewer’s body of work as well.
This concerted effort has yielded some success, but I haven’t felt like I’ve taken any big risks with my reading choices. For example, many of the books I’ve read in the past six months have been from tried and trusted sources – established classics such as Jack London’s The Call of the Wild & White Fang duology or Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, new releases from old favourites like Bill Bryson (The Body) or Philip Pullman (The Secret Commonwealth) and installments from established crime fiction series like Jack Reacher or Lady Hardcastle Mysteries.
And so, I’m very fortunate to have taken the plunge last week and read Elizabeth Gilbert’s extraordinary 2013 novel The Signature of All Things. Ms. Gilbert is best known for her 2003 memoir Eat, Pray, Love which was adapted into a commercially successful Julia Roberts vehicle in 2010 (which I hadn’t watched due to poor critic reviews). She released her latest novel City of Girls in June 2019 and it’s while reading this review that I became aware of her past work, including the memoir and the 2013 novel. Somehow the synopsis of The Signature of all Things intrigued me sufficiently enough that I put it into my reading list at that time. Ten months later, I finally got around to reading it and couldn’t put it down.
The novel begins in the year 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker at her father’s White Acre estate on the west bank of the Schuylkill River in Philadelphia, backtracks a couple of decades to recount the travels and exploits of her British father Henry Whittaker eventually leading back to the time of Alma’s birth, and then follows her life from childhood to old age. Traversing most of the 19th century, it is simultaneously a history lesson, a treatise on botany, a travelogue, a multi-generational saga and an intimate chronicle of a woman’s journey of self-discovery. We are with Alma as she experiences the biggest inflection points of her life, plumbing the depths of anguish and scaling the sparkling peaks of elation and unadulterated joy. And in doing so, I think the story mirrors the random sine waves of each of our lives.
What I found most inspiring and uplifting was Alma’s fighting spirit; no matter how low she was laid by circumstances or how long she fell into a monotonous rut, she would eventually take stock and take action – big or small – to alter the course of her life. But it’s not just Alma Whittaker; the book is peppered with extraordinary characters – some deeply flawed and some impossibly noble – who together saturate this novel with color and texture.
This is not a fairy tale with a happy ending. It is also not a conventional family saga of empire building and mismatched siblings (although both of these elements do exist in the story). Instead, Elizabeth Gilbert presents us with a singular, non-formulaic narrative, full of twists and turns and rabbit holes. Although it is a ‘big’ novel in terms of the physical, commercial and emotional impact of actions taken by its protagonists, the key characters can be counted on the fingers of two hands; indeed, it could perhaps even be adapted into a stage play. But as much as this is a story of people, it is also a story of humankind’s relationship with nature and in that sense, reading it is akin to going on a deeply spiritual journey.