Tuesday, August 12, 2014

"The Signature of All Things:" Ambitious, Expansive, and Intelligent

I'm a book gusher.  I always have been.  When I love a book, I want to gush about it to whoever will listen (which is why I enjoy book blogging so much).  One of my favorite parts of being an English teacher was when I gushed about books I loved.  My classroom bookshelf took up an entire wall, so anytime I could recommend books to my students, I would need to stop myself from rambling too much and gushing at an uncontrollable rate.

When I meet another book gusher, I love to hear about their book passions.  The books they can't put down.  The books that make them want to shut out the rest of the world until they finish every last page.

My friend, Kris, is a book gusher.  Maybe she doesn't gush about every book, but when I recently visited  Pennsylvania, she told me that she was in the midst of a relationship with Elizabeth Gilbert's "The Signature of All Things," so her time was limited.  She didn't want it to end, and she said, "Alma is so strong, so very strong."  I asked her if I could borrow it after she finished, and she happily agreed to let me borrow her book.

The last week of my life I've been consumed with the lives of the Whittaker family and their torrid and fascinating history.  The book begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor but very clever boy, who ends up making a fortune by stealing plants and selling them.  When the owner of the plants, Sir Joseph Banks, discovers the thefts, he sends Henry (basically to banish him) around the world on voyages with the formidable Captain Cook to study botany.   Henry becomes an astute botanist, and learns to survive, listen, and practice abstinence while all the other sailors fall prey to indulgences.

Upon his return from voyage after voyage, Henry forges his own fortune and moves to Philadelphia with his equally strong willed wife, Beatrice.  After many miscarriages, they finally have a girl, Alma, who not only survives, but thrives and can hold her own in arguments and discussions with world travelers and astute philosophers at her father's always entertaining dinner table.

Although the beginning of the book revolves around Henry, Alma becomes the center of the rambling plot as she consumes books about botany and revels in all pursuits of the mind.  She learns to live with her adopted (and much more beautiful) sister, Prudence, and even finds friendship with a flighty and ridiculous girl named Retta Snow.  Alma's academic pursuits always take precedence over her pursuits of the heart as she navigates her love for George Hawkes, a fellow scholar who loves Alma for her ideas but does not see her as a romantic interest.  When Ambrose Pike, an angelic traveler who has spent his life drawing the intricacies of orchids arrives at Alma's home, White Acre, the story line diverts in odd and illuminating directions and the truth of the title, "The Signature of All Things" is revealed "namely that God had hidden clues for humanity's betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth.  All the natural world was a divine code."

The remaining half of the book follows Alma through her middle ages and her own renaissance of spirit and understanding of herself and her world.  Her studies of mosses and her unique strength and wisdom make her a heroine to be loved and cherished, a warrior to be feared, and a humble innocent who the readers can sympathize with in her darkest moments.  We feel her grief.  We see her strength.  We celebrate her triumphs.  When Alma realizes that she wants to live rather than drown and sees clearly "that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died" I wanted to stand on my chair and shout to celebrate her existence and her strength to live and fight.

The scope of the book revolves around evolutionary theory and the survival of the fittest - not the most beautiful or the most desirable or the most sensitive.  As Alma discovers in her feverish exploration of mosses and the interconnectedness of the world (which she calls "A theory of competitive alteration"), "the trick at every turn was to endure the test of living for as long as possible.  The odds of survival were punishingly slim, for the world was naught but a school of calamity and an endless burning furnace of tribulation.  But those who survived the world shaped it - even as the world, simultaneously, shaped them."

Each page in Gilbert's sweeping epic novel sings with intelligence and original freshness.  I loved watching Alma's self and world discovery from her baffled thoughts on her beautiful, China doll-esque sister, Prudence, to her befuddlement over relationships.  I loved her interactions with her fiery, titan father, and his doting admiration of her.  I loved the travels to Tahiti and back again.  Although there were holes in the narrative and incredible leaps at times (as well as some underdeveloped secondary characters), I would definitely gush about this book to someone else who wants the challenge of the 500 page epic.

This book restored my faith in Gilbert (much as her Ted Talk did) after her lucrative success with "Eat, Pray, Love" which I found mildly entertaining albeit a bit whiny.  This book is a ferocious journey through love, loss, and mostly the survival of the fittest.

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