The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Precursory note: I am a biased, big-time Gilbert fan. I loved Eat, Pray, Love, thoroughly enjoyed her previously published short stories and fiction, and have a small curation of her works, now signed since meeting her last November. I even have Eat, Pray, Love on audiobook just to listen to while I run errands.
That said, I started The Signature of All Things enthusiastically. I knew it was a book years in the making, a well-researched and epic. It started a little slow for me. Indeed, the first half of the book builds a solid foundation for the dramatic, moving elements of the second half, but it was long-going. I nonetheless enjoyed the character development, and the conversational tone with which she told a 19th-century tale about a middle-aged spinster botanist. Not something I would usually pick up and read, so my imagination enjoyed the change of subject from parenting blogs and books about black history.
Just when I found myself having to put the effort into moving forward through this book, it took a turn. It zoomed into a spiritual quest, a love story, a Jerry Springer-type family drama, a sexy romp, an international adventure.
I was no longer analyzing the book as a writer, contemplating language, structure, themes and plot. I was transported into a page-turning reader, thirsting for more, wondering what the answers might be. As I rounded the corner into the final pages, I was already getting sad to say goodbye to lead character Alma Whittaker. Indeed, I cried a bit when I did. I returned to Gilbert's Facebook page for her real-life inspiration pictures of the botanical gardens, Alma's last tree, orchid drawings and Tahitian research pictures to suck the most marrow out of the tale's bones as I possibly could.
I felt a need to really understand these sometimes mysterious, complicated characters. The last time I chewed over a character's motivations so much was in Jeffrey Eugenides' Virgin Suicides.
There is talk already of this book being translated onto the big screen, and I am excited. I have been imagining how a director would visually display some of the scenes, and which actors would best embody the very specific, strong personalities of the characters.
I have also been reflecting on the plot points and wondering how much of the first half of the book was necessary, given how long it felt to me as I read it. Truly, it was all needed. Every element builds up into the book's sweeping themes of sacrifice, love, spirituality, family legacy, feminism (not the scary kind!) and discovery.
Please treat yourself to this book, and enjoy being taken far and away by a writer who is true to her art and thorough in her practice.
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