A return to her roots
Elizabeth Gilbert does so ambitiously with her sweeping new novel “The Signature of All Things.”
By Naila Francis
Elizabeth Gilbert didn’t have to try hard to avoid the cliche. She simply doesn’t believe in it.
Sure, the celebrated writer found her happily-ever-after by the time the final page of her mega-best-selling memoir “Eat, Pray, Love” was turned. And though its follow-up, “Committed,” pondered the modern-day necessity of marriage with musings both historical and anecdotal, there was no question she would surrender her opposition at its end.
“The Signature of All Things,” the Frenchtown author’s new book about a 19th-century female bryologist, published Tuesday by Viking, boasts no such tidy or tender ending.
Alma Whittaker, Gilbert’s intelligent and independent protagonist, is a woman whose fulfillment comes from studying the world, in particular mosses. In the century-spanning, continent-crossing tale, her passion for her work ultimately thrusts her into one of the greatest scientific debates of the time, as she lends her voice, albeit quietly, to the development of the theory of evolution.
Even Gilbert admits she is a strikingly different character.
“I wanted to write about a woman of towering intellect. I feel that’s a character that’s been missing from 19th-century novels about women,” she said. “I wanted to write about a woman whose life is knitted together by the thread of curiosity and work and that’s an essential part of her life. Certainly, there’s love and loss and family and duty. But I feel that’s not a story we see very often.
“Why do we generally get only two endings in novels? You’re either married to Mr. Darcy or under the wheels of a train.
“The reality of women’s lives is different,” she said. “Most of us don’t get fairy-tale endings or horribly tragic endings. We get something very much in the middle where we don’t get everything we wanted yet we have interesting lives. Women are masters of resilience in the face of disappointment and it’s unfair to keep showing them as fragile creatures who break with one devastation.”
Alma, in contrast to many of those heroines, is tall and plain and frankly accepting of her “fishwife’s hands” and “encyclopedia of a head.” But she also is surprisingly sensual.
“I wanted to write about a carnal woman who’s not beautiful because in most novels when the woman is sensual, that’s telegraphed in her appearance. She has auburn hair and heaving breasts and flashing eyes,” said Gilbert. “The reality of life and biology is those things are hidden and show up in the most surprising places at times.”
Alma’s story, which is told in sprawling, fastidiously researched fashion, returns Gilbert to her roots in fiction. Well before her forays as a memoirist turned her into girlfriend and guru to millions of women worldwide, she was a writer of three critically acclaimed books, including her first novel, “Stern Men,” published in 2000. So when she decided to leave nonfiction behind, she had a strong sense of direction.
“The idea was to write the kinds of novels I’ve always loved to read — some big, sweeping, multigenerational book of ideas,” said Gilbert, whose tour in support of “The Signature of All Things” brings her to the Free Library of Philadelphia on Thursday.
She also felt exhilarated knowing “Committed” was behind her.
“The impetus for the book was a sense of liberty and celebration after having written the most difficult thing I would have to write, which is the book that comes after ‘Eat, Pray, Love.’ It just felt like stepping out of a tsunami. Once I did that and survived that, there was just this great expansive sense that I no longer owed anything to anybody, that I’d broken the spell. It was like pressing ‘restart,’ ” said Gilbert.
Yet it was the mammoth success of her first memoir that allowed her the freedom to pursue the kind of old-fashioned storytelling she luxuriates in with “The Signature of All Things.”
“There aren’t that many women who have that kind of creative independence. I just thought, ‘Don’t waste that wonderful gift on something small. Go big or go home,’ ” said Gilbert.
She spent three years researching the book, poring over the writings of Darwin and other naturalists, as well as the letters they exchanged and the correspondence among everyday people, too. She mastered tone by re-reading beloved authors like Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope. And, of course, she traveled, spending time in London’s famed Kew Gardens, where Alma’s father gets his unlikely start as a botanical importer, and The Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, where his daughter eventually ends up. There were jaunts to Tahiti and other locations, too, as well as ample time spent in Philadelphia, where the novel is set.
If botany seems an unlikely subject, she was inspired by her own gardening obsession, and her discovery of botany as the only scientific field open to women of the Victorian era. That Darwin and his theories would also figure into her writing was only inevitable.
“You can’t read about the 19th century without running into evolution. Anybody who was anybody then was circling that question ferociously. I thought Darwin sprung this idea on a surprised world. In fact, I was amazed to discover how many people were trying to get at that answer,” said Gilbert.
If such subjects seem ponderously intellectual for a novel that promises breathless absorption, Gilbert proves as engaging a writer as ever while remaining in command of so much scientific knowledge. And for those who miss the chatty and sage confidante who let them so guilelessly into her life, she’s still there, on Twitter and Facebook, sharing insights, questions and updates from her corner of the world.
“The stuff I talk about is just stuff I think about. I am always thinking about refining who I am, how do we become better people, how do we define our strengths, how do we forgive each other. It’s not like I’m done with that,” said Gilbert. “The nice thing is I don’t have to ask myself, ‘Am I obliged to keep writing books that directly address these things?’ I can do them every day — in a way that feels intimate and personal.”
– The Bucks County Courier Times and The Intelligencer