Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (a novel)
Review by Kelly Slivka
Imagining An Unrecorded History
It must immediately be said that I, unlike many modern women, have never read Eat, Pray, Love, the nonfiction phenomenon that brought Elizabeth Gilbert out of the literary shadows and into international celebrity. In fact, before enjoyably strolling my way through her novel The Signature of All Things, her latest release, I knew hardly a thing about Elizabeth Gilbert nor had I read a sentence she’d written.
But I’d argue that my unfamiliarity with Gilbert’s body of work doesn’t thwart my understanding of this new addition. Gilbert is a dynamic writer, beginning her fruitful career with an acclaimed short story collection, moving on to journalistic nonfiction, then producing a couple novels, then exploring memoirs, and now coming back to the novel. A reader can hop onto her career at any time and find something quite different from what’s been done before. As I’m a scientist with a proclivity for imaginative history, it seemed The Signature of All Things would be a perfect place for me to investigate some Gilbert and see what the fuss is all about.
The Signature of All Things, a sweeping novel that covers nearly one hundred years of tumultuous history across several countries, anchors itself in the strict adherence to empirical thought and practical motives that are the foundation of science, yet takes tethered rides to sidereal destinations, asking, “What if?” and “Why so?” with childlike vivacity and curiosity.
The novel’s central story is a life story, that of fictional Anna Whittaker, born in 1800 to a Philadelphia botanist and his wife who together ruled over the most impressive pharmaceutical empire in the world. Anna’s firm Dutch mother tries heartily to weed emotionalism out of Anna’s nature and teaches her to handle herself with a chokehold of dignity, while her English father prunes her into a punctilious botanist capable of producing world class scientific papers in her early twenties.
Though Anna is raised as a machine of science and social restraint, she could not be wholly severed from the passions that come with being alive. As a young woman she discovers her inner wildness and her sexuality. She falls in love, she explores her desires as best she can. But due in part to her upbringing, in part to the chastened time during which she lives, in part to her social status and in part to chance, Anna is tortured rather than liberated by her passions. Most of her life passes as a straightjacket of compromise and self-restriction. She takes all her energies and traps them in her devoted research on mosses.
But near her 50th birthday, Anna’s sails are suddenly filled with inviting winds – Ambrose Pike, a marvelous botanical artist, arrives in her life. She is jolted into the world of companionship and affection that she’s viscerally craved. Her late-in-life adventure, which begins with Ambrose’s appearance, is the pith of both Anna’s life and the novel. We’re shown that life’s surprises are boundless, that our actions echo out into the universe, and that the things we are sure we know aren’t really known at all. Everything can change on a dime, a truth that is both hopeful and frightening.
The Signature of All Things is a display of virtuosic storytelling. Gilbert maintains a strong narrative pull throughout, even while describing scientific practice and the life cycle of mosses. She employs a few narrative freedoms to keep the story focused. She glosses over the arduous exploration expeditions that Anna’s father joined as a young man, for example, and avoids as much as possible the dark, imperialistic underbelly of the late 18th Century and early 19th Century.
In order to abbreviate the story, Gilbert also skips over 24 years of Anna Whittaker’s life, leaving her in one chapter when she’s 24 years old and picking her back up in the next chapter when she’s 48. While Gilbert tells us nothing of note happens to Anna over this span of years, missing such a formative gap of time in Anna’s life is somewhat unpalatable.
Any nitpicking over Gilbert’s handling of narrative mechanisms, however, can be forgiven in the face of what she has achieved. With energetic ingenuity, The Signature of All Things reclaims for women a historical period in which they are conspicuously marginalized. Gilbert’s fanciful yet artfully grounded story explores how some facets of our humanness – passion, discipline, error – are timeless, and yet the way we interpret them is intricately tied to the time in which we live.
Most importantly, by reinventing the past, Gilbert opens up a forum where we as readers can reassess how we’re living in the present.