Having started as a writer of fiction, then achieved enormous success with her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert took her time returning to fiction; this work did not appear until 2013, but whatever portion of the intervening years was spent on it was very well spent. The Signature of All Things is epic, despite being structured with utter simplicity, telling the stories of one poor-born English boy, Henry Whittaker (who grows himself into a wealthy merchant of plants and their derivatives over roughly the first third of the text) and of his Pennsylvania-born daughter, Alma, who devotes her life to botany or, more specifically, bryolgy – the study of mosses.
That structure ends up revealed as a metaphor for the novel’s real subject – wonder at a universe in which one can study even a tiny slice (the mosses growing on a particular cluster of rocks in one corner of one estate in nineteenth-century Philadelphia) and discover there an all-encompassing truth, a principle which drives and energizes the entire physical world. In the same way Alma employs her microscope to understand the characteristics of individual specimens, then compares them to discover why they are so different, Gilbert examines those two lives, along with at most a dozen others who touch upon them, and so exposes uses universal experiences of human yearning for love, desire for a greater power, struggle for a personal place and meaningful occupation, importance of family, and more. (One is reminded of William Boyd’s Any Human Heart, which was similarly simple in concept – the story of a single human life – but equally moving in exposing the complexity to which that formula actually equates).
This is a placid work, though never plodding. Early on one wonders at the author’s intent – there is no singular quest or mystery serving as through-line, no culminating dramatic conflict, no grail being sought, except the generalized pursuit of profit (Henry) and of knowledge (Alma). Even in that though, one can read a message: scarcity of nourishment breeds a desire for material sustenance and security, abundance allows the mind to search for other sorts of sustenance – the intellectual, the romantic and the spiritual. In that sense, Henry and Alma’s tale may be seen as an expansion upon Gilbert’s memoir – her characters must first eat, before they can worry about praying and loving.
In that regard, it is interesting to note the other work Gilbert produced during the 7 years between Eat, Pray Love and this one: Committed, a memoir on the institution of marriage. Of the several marriages portrayed here, Henry’s is one of utility and function, Alma’s a shattered dream of romance and connection, her sister Prudence’s one of sacrifice and duty… One wonders to what degree the aspiration which characterized the memoirs shaped the novel, then wonders again whether the bleak view of marriage portrayed here had anything to do with the forces which would end Gilbert’s own marriage a couple of years later – it just seems a stretch that the optimist of those two memoirs would portray the institution as she does here. None of which is to say this is a pessimistic story, or bitter or any such negative, but rather that it is one which leads away from romance as solution to life’s longings, and toward the search for something more encompassing and self-supporting.
This is a sizeable book (500 pages or so in print) and contains much detail which might be off-putting to some readers (and must have taken substantial effort to compile and incorporate). For those who share a love of the physical world, though, or simply enjoy learning new things, that is an attraction rather than an obstacle. It is also an integral factor in bringing us along on Alma’s journey from microcosm to macrocosm.
Well researched, well written, exceedingly well-intentioned, this is a marvel and well-worthy of some grand prize. Tis pity it did not make a greater splash in the literary world.