Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Signature of All Things

Last summer I read this book called The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. I took a picture of it and posted it on my Instagram, 'cause that's how I do. Then I started loaning it out to anyone I could convince to read it. But I couldn't stop thinking about it and internalizing it. This is the kind of book I would love to write. This is the type of world and characters I would love to create and share.

The Signature of All Things is the grandest, most unique and imaginative story I've read in a very long time. Maybe ever. I'm not going to try and really summarize or review the book. It would be hard to without giving anything away that I feel you should just encounter through reading the book. Pick it up and be surprised. Or, Google that shit if you really care. But basically:

Alma Whittaker is born at the beginning of the year 1800, to a self-made, botanical/pharmaceutical entrepreneur father who sailed with the explorer Captain Cook, and a strong, brilliantly educated Dutch mother. Alma dedicates herself to studying the much-neglected mosses of the world, and this survey leads her deep into the mysteries of evolution. (Remember this is pre-Darwin, so there is no established Theory of Evolution.) But it's also about unrequited love, sexual exploration, and angel messengers. The book spans eight decades and takes place in Amsterdam, London, Philadelphia and Tahiti. 

I know, I know. A summary cannot do this book justice.  If you love science, specifically botany, and beautiful storytelling, this book is for you. If you love stories with tremendous scope and quirky, yet charming characters, this book is for you. If you love explorations of purity and pleasure, and encounters with divine beings, this book is for you. I'd like to think it is a book for everyone, but it is not. 

This book was akin to a little spiritual encounter for me. There was so much of my own father in this novel, it seemed providence I read it when trying to process his absence. The wonder at the ways of the world, and the logical deduction and creative reasoning that often cannot explain its mysteries was something that kept him quite fascinated, and frequently troubled, his whole life long. Nature is the battlefield where most often spiritualism and science collide in overt, examinable ways. My dad often stood there, not always sure on which side he fought, or why one had to necessarily separate from or against the other. 

Alma, a fictional character, and her deep admiration for natural sciences was so contagious, I found myself examining the world around me with new and enlivened senses. It brought me deeper understanding of how I think my dad might have experienced the world around him. For Alma, there is no need for something more than her here and now, her present existence. She relishes in fact and actuality. There's no need for anything greater or beyond, because the natural world is so glorious it is completely fulfilling and totally satisfying. But she just can't fully understand it. Some things - some people - cannot be explained by scientific fact or any amount of evidence and study, and that's her missing piece: the hole in her evolutionary argument.

For those of you snooty readers (like me!) who are raising an eyebrow at the author - Elizabeth Gilbert of Eat, Pray, Love fame - let me just say: this book is nothing like Eat, Pray, Love. Now, I read EPL and I enjoyed it for what it was - a glorified self-help adventure. It was a light, frivolous read for the most part, that verged on self-indulgent. There are common themes that carry through all of her work, but EPL is not even in the same weight class as this masterpiece she's given us now. Every time I look at this cover I kinda want to grab a sharpie and mark out the line that says "author of Eat, Pray, Love" because these two books couldn't be more different. I love Liz, I love her podcast "Magic Lessons," and I'll read her future work (Big Magic on shelves 9/22), but her artistry here is ingenious. So don't let that association frighten you away, and conversely, don't open this book thinking it will be another rompy memoir. You'll be missing out either way.

Finally, read it before Masterpiece Theatre takes Alma's story to the screen! I'm delighted PBS optioned the book, and that Liz handed over this intricate and astonishing story to the team at Masterpiece, who I feel will treat it more delicately than anyone else could. I cannot wait to experience it all over again through film.

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