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Friday, 9 May 2014
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
What We Thought: This unusual novel tells the life story of a woman, Alma Whittaker, born at the beginning of the 19th century. It's a bit of a Moby Dick of a book except that we learn a lot about bryology (mosses) instead of cetology (whales). And that's praise by the way – I love Moby Dick.
Alma Whittaker is highly intelligent, not considered attractive, focussed on her studies and at the beck and call of her father, the adventurer and self-made man Henry Whittaker. She falls in love twice during the course of the book but neither emotional attachment ends well.
This is a book about love and sacrifice, a woman's sexuality, the pleasures of study and the evolution of the species. We learn about Sir Joseph Banks, Captain Cook and Charles Darwin, while visiting a variety of locations: Philadelphia, London, Amsterdam, Tahiti. In some ways, this book is a mishmash of ideas but that's not necessarily a bad thing.
I have a suspicion however that if Elizabeth Gilbert had not already had a massive success with Eat Pray Love (an altogether different type of book I believe) this novel, The Signature of All Things, would have had a harder time getting a publisher. That's not to say it's bad – it isn't – but it disobeys one of the so-called 'rules' of writing – there's a lot of 'telling' as opposed to 'showing'. This is done well, however, and doesn't detract from the book's readability. And it certainly shortens an already long book.
I found this novel both entertaining and educational and it has certainly made me look at moss in a whole different light.
You'll enjoy this if you like: Learning while you read; obscure facts; The Goldfinch; Moby Dick.
Avoid if you dislike: Longish novels that seem not to have any particular focus. Long passages without dialogue.
Ideal accompaniments: A stiff drink most of the time.
Genre: Literary, Historical