Elizabeth Gilbert is well known for her memoir Eat, Pray, Love or so I assume, but sadly I haven’t read the book yet. I’ve seen the movie and it wasn’t half bad. I would also assume that when talking about this author, most would know her by the EPL success. With The Signature of All Things, Gilbert brings us fiction and tells the story of an extraordinary woman called Alma Whittaker. The story plays off mostly in the 19th century, but starts at the end of the 18th century telling us some background on Alma’s father, Henry, a botanical importer who was extremely wealthy. Her mother Beatrix, a Dutchwoman, was very strict in Alma’s upbringing and as a result of this education in their household was very important. Suffice to say, Alma was a girl/woman of superior intelligence, but unfortunately she was a very plain girl or “homely” as her father called her and she was jealous of her adopted sister, Prudence who was beautiful.
Alma lost interest in marriage after the man she was in love with married another woman. Thereafter she decides to study and start a scientific exploration of mosses, which spanned over long time until she met a man called Ambrose Pike. He was a spiritual being and Alma fell in love with him, married him and only later found out, after not consummating their marriage for weeks that theirs was, according to Ambrose, a “marriage of souls”. This exasperated Alma! She married him at 48 and even though she was an old married woman, she was still a virgin. She banished him to Tahiti and went on with her life and to take care of her ailing father. After she found out about his death, she also found out some disturbing information about her late husband. She set off to Tahiti after her father’s death to find out the truth.
Her study of mosses lead her to later write an essay about natural selection, but she never published it, even though her uncle persisted. She then found out that Darwin beat her to it – he published the exact same theory that she did. However her reason for not publishing her theory is that she knew her theory had a whole in it as she couldn’t explain how altruism fit into her theory. The behavior such as her sister Prudence’s, who gave up the love of her life because she knew Alma loved him too.
My thoughts on the book? For the most part I truly enjoyed it, but I became less interested in the story when the storyline moved to where she was in Tahiti, as I found it slightly boring. Regardless, I cannot deny that the research was done well and Alma’s story was fascinating. She didn’t find herself to be particularly interesting (“She was a virgin and a widow and an orphan and an heiress and an old lady and an absolute fool”), but I surely did!