Poor Elizabeth Gilbert. She wrote one sensational best-seller (good for her, by the way) and now, no matter what she writes and how meticulously researched, emotionally precise, and just plain good it is, nobody can let her forget that she once wrote a book that has been relegated to the denigrated category of popular literature. It’s a shame that not one reviewer (at least, that I could find) of her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was able to refrain from mentioning, often with a hint of malice, her previous success. Janet Maslin, in The New York Times, couldn’t help but speculate that the heroine of her new novel, Alma Whittaker, “would never have read the 19th-century equivalent of Ms. Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love.” Oh, please.
It’s a shame because The Signature of All Things is terrific. As anyone who reads this blog probably knows by now, I have a weakness for a good 19th-century novel, and Gilbert’s story seems to take its cues both from the novel of manners and the adventure novel as it follows Alma, whose life spans most of the century. Incidentally, another critique that seems to repeat in several published reviews regards the implausibility of the adventure part of the plot, which seems to me to be a stretch. First, people, it’s fiction – implausible things are allowed, even supposed, to happen when you make things up – and second, have you not read any other novels ever? Because, say, Around the World in Eighty Days doesn’t seem very plausible either, but it is so good that people still read it more than a hundred years after it was published. And no one except a very fusty scholar indeed would ever bother to read a book review that was more than a hundred years old. So there. Elizabeth Gilbert 1, reviewers 0.
I’m a huge sucker for exactly this kind of novel, and it doesn’t disappoint. It’s ambitious, detailed, dramatic, even delightfully implausible. Implausibility, after all, is why I read fiction. My real life is depressingly plausible enough. It follows Alma, a character whom it is impossible to root against, for all her faults, through the turns and twists of an entire life, and nearly an entire century. And what a century it was! This novel focuses in particular on the world-changing scientific developments that shook the 19th century, culminating with Darwin’s theory of evolution and natural selection, through the marginal perspective of what used to be called a “polite botanist” – that is, a botanist with two X chromosomes. Alma, confined to the boundaries of her father’s palatial estate by her mother’s dying wish and the customs of her time, becomes an expert in mosses, discovering a universe in the humblest, most overlooked plants.
Alma, like her mosses, is an unassuming creature who contains worlds. As she unlocks the secrets of moss we watch as she also unlocks human secrets: love, jealousy, regret, resentment, friendship, humility. The parts of the novel that reviewers found implausible I found essential to this process, which is central to the momentum and meaning of the novel. These plot twists seemed to form the crucible in which Alma’s character develops, necessary not only to the plot and forward motion of the novel but also to its slow internal flowering, the blossoming of human understanding and universal sympathy that good books offer a reader. Perhaps part of what reviewers saw as implausibility, other than some of the wilder plot elements, was the way in which Alma became a kind of feminist hero by the end of the novel, but this seemed to me to be one of its strengths, in imagining, or reimagining, the kind of life that has always been absent from history.
One other note on the discomfort this book seemed to cause in its official readers: Gilbert’s depiction of sex, sexuality, and gender here is far more fluid, and less bounded, than our culture likes it to be. I can’t help but wonder if “implausibility” is just code for “this does not fit into any category I have ever known and therefore I don’t like it.” As a contrarian in these matters, I rather appreciated the novel’s attempt to normalize behavior and desires that both within and outside of the context of the story might be unclassifiable, like, perhaps, a never-before-seen species of moss.