Saturday, February 28, 2015

The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of all Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
4 stars - at times a bit slow, but overall, a grand novel
ALR Green - a nice dog towards the end of the book

Friends, my reading mojo has been significantly diminished by the extraordinarily harsh winter here in New England. With over 100 inches of snow accumulating in a month and desperately cold temperatures, I've been reduced to binge watching mindless television series on Netflix.

Thus, it took some time for me to get through this, rather dense, 500 page novel.

The Signature of All Things is the life story of Miss Alma Whittacker. Born, conveniently, in 1800 (even I had no trouble calculating her age throughout the story), Miss Whittacker is the only daughter of the great botanical explorer and businessman, Henry Whittacker. Her world is all about plants, science, and striving to learn. For many years, life at the White Acres estate is sufficient. It's a fabulous Pennsylvania retreat filled with greenhouses of exotic plants from all over the world. There is also the running of her father's business to engage her as he hires botanical explorers to traverse the globe in search of more and more species of plants, both medicinal and decorative. When Alma's father dies, she is confronted with the opportunity to leave White Acres for the first time. To seek adventure, yes, but also to seek answers to those vexing questions of human nature which no science can explain. 

There are many surprising turns throughout. Not surprising in the manner of a great mystery, but more so in the inevitable changes of direction in the lives of most of us. Who can predict at the age of twenty where we will be and what we will consider important decades hence? The events of our lives, while mostly un-noteworthy in the greater world are always quite compelling to ourselves.

So it is with Alma Whittacker. Each decade brings a life both unexpected and, yet, somehow predictable and inevitable if one could only unwind the past to looks for clues. Alma's interests, her feelings towards others, her decisions regarding how to live change over time. Her life experiences are recorded brilliantly. As in my own life, there are many years which can be summarized with a few sentences while other times days must be examined in detail. 

Alma's botanical research eventually leads her to mosses, plants which patiently evolve over decades, fight silent battles, and often only reveal their true power when taken as a whole over time. 

I fear to reveal the events of Alma's life would be to spoil the joy of taking the journey with her, so I will say no more on that topic. While it is a wonderful, rich book, I did find it a bit sluggish at times. I can't say whether that is due to an editor reluctant to cut or my snow clouded brain, but it was certainly worth continuing on through the end. 

I will share with you one passage from the book which resonated with me. A character who had spent many years traveling the world in search of rare orchids arrives at the Whittacker estate and is immediately charmed by the possibility of spending his remaining life surrounded by an abundance of things both ordinary and extraordinary to examine at his leisure. It captures exquisitely my current state of mind regarding seeking adventure v. enjoying the pleasures at hand.

I would like never to travel again. I would like to spend the rest of my days in a place so silent - and working at a pace so slow - that I would be able to hear myself living.


  1. Sluggish and long isn't on my radar right now, but that quote at the end speaks to me. I don't travel so much, but I am way too busy and have a job that drains me.

  2. That's a nice kind of book - the kind that makes you feel involved, and maybe even a little sorry to see it end.

    Check out Bosch on Amazon Prime. That was pretty good binge watching TV that actually seems to think the viewer has a brain. We finished it last night.