The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Viking Adult 2013.
Elizabeth Gilbert is probably best known for her autobiographical book Eat, Pray, Love, which was turned into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Both are about Gilbert’s need to more firmly establish The Meaning of Her Life and re-discover her true essence or something by taking a year “off” (she was a novelist and freelance writer, with no kids – not exactly the coal mines). She travels first to Italy, then to India (to a meditation ashram), and then to Bali where she finds a nice boy. The parts of the book and movie about Italy and what she gets to eat there are ok, and there are some nice descriptions of Bali, but I had no interest in the rest of her journey into the pit of naval-gazing:
So yes, I was a little dubious about picking up her new novel, although it is not about herself, so at least it had that going for it. And it turns out that if this is the kind of novel Gilbert is capable of writing, she can take all the self-realization journeys that she needs. Most of the book – the last quarter was disappointing – is fantastic all around: unique story, appealing heroine, and engaging fictional science writing. The main character, Alma Whittaker, is an early nineteenth century American botanist who is fascinated with the natural world and specifically with moss. On that alone, I have to applaud Gilbert. It’s not everyday that one finds a New York Times bestseller-list fiction book with so much scientific botanical detail. As I happen to belong to a family that relishes discussing science I found myself happily relating to some of Alma’s experiences – but I have to wonder how many other readers out there would be as amused I was to read how one character encounters Alma’s mother’s garden:
“ ‘You must tell me, Miss Whittaker – what mad genius took such pains to fabricate this garden according to strict Euclidean geometric ideals?’
‘It was my mother’s inspiration, sir. Had she not passed away many years ago, she would have thrilled to know that you recognized her objectives.’
‘Who would not recognize them? It’s the golden ratio! We have double squares here, containing recurrent nets of squares – and with the pathways bisecting the entire construction, we make several three-four-five triangles, as well. It’s so pleasing! The boxwoods are perfect, too. They seem to serve as equation marks to all the conjugates. She must have been a delight, your mother.’”
Alma’s mother, Beatrix, “encouraged a spirit of investigation” as part of a very no-nonsense Dutch upbringing in their manor in Pennsylvania in the early 1800’s. Alma’s father Henry made a fortune by maintaining a monopoly on an extract from fever tree bark used for various pharmaceutical purposes. Alma was given uncharacteristic schooling for girls at that time, most of it from her mother, who maintained that “at no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning.” Alma is a prodigious student. From her mother she learns multiple languages and classic literature. In her lonely (Alma grows up with few friends) ramblings across their estate, she studies the natural world:
“In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell the time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened….if Alma was not back to the house with her hands washed by five o’clock – when the globeflower closed and the evening primrose began to open – she would find herself in trouble.”
The third part of her education occurs at the dinner table. As part of his business, Henry entertained often, and Alma “spent the tender years of her childhood listening to the most extraordinary conversations – the men who studied the decomposition of human remains; with men who examined the organic matter of sulfuric springs; and with one man who was an expert on the pulmonary function of aquatic birds…”
Though her father is indeed a botanist by trade, Alma seems to fall in love with the natural world all on her own. Again and again, I found myself admiring Gilbert’s ability to convey true scientific wonder:
“Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her – dozens more such boulders…each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world…this was the firmament of the universe, as seen through one of William Herschel’s mighty telescopes….
In every way mosses could seem plain, dull, modest, even primitive. But here is what few people understood and what Alma came to learn: Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone…moss dines about boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries. Given enough time, a colony of moss can turn a cliff into gravel…under shelves of exposed limestone, moss colonies create dripping, living sponges that hold on tight and drink calciferous water straight from the stone. Over time, this mix of moss and mineral will turn into travertine marble. Within that hard, creamy-white marble surface, one will forever see veins of blue, green, and gray – the traces of the antediluvian moss settlements.”
I for one think that if Gilbert runs out of ideas for another novel she could certainly do well in re-writing high school biology textbooks.
Alma’s relationships with people are just as intriguing as her relationship with the natural world. Alma’s beautiful adopted sister, Prudence (the daughter of a promiscuous house maid) struggles with being known “only” for her beauty and her birth mother’s reputation and, apparently as a result of that ‘trauma,’ turns into an ascetic Puritan devoted to abolitionism. At no point do Alma and her sister get along, due equally to Prudence’s extreme shyness and reticence and Alma’s sub-par interpersonal skills. Alma believes herself to be content between her moss, her father, and her comforting old Dutch housekeeper, until she falls in love. The man is named Ambrose Pike, and he first comes to her attention because of his magnificent lithographs of tropical orchids. If you need a refresher on the symbolism of orchids in regards to amorous interest, go browse around here for a bit: http://www.georgiaokeeffegallery.com/
After Ambrose comes to stay with her father, Alma realizes that her existence “before the arrival of Ambrose Pike, had been a good enough one…she had her customs, habits, and responsibilities…true, she was something like a book that had opened to the same page every single day for nearly thirty straight years – but it had not been such a bad page. By all measures, it had been a good life…she could never return to that life now…Cut loose for the first time in her life into the realm of love, imbued with impossible energy, Alma barely recognized herself. Her capacities seemed limitless….it was not merely Ambrose whom she regarded with such vivid purity and thrill – but everything and everybody…”
This is probably a good segue to point out what I thought were the low points of the book. The first is related to the, um, orchids. Gilbert seems at great pains to emphasize that Alma is not, unlike the mosses, asexual. Alma’s house has a lot of biology books hanging around, so she learns some certain things early on, and from a young age spends a lot of time reading these books in a special dark closet where she delves into self-exploration. Trust me, I didn’t want to mention it on the blog here, but it’s just that Gilbert spends a good bit of time on it, and one just wants to say ok we get it already. Fifty Shades of Moss or whatever.
The other doesn’t happen until the very end of the book. As was probably inevitable in a book about 19th century biological exploration, Alma encounters the work of Darwin, A.R. Wallace. Spoiler alert – of course she had written about this same theory of evolution, but is a female, and so on and so forth. This could have gone in a somewhat tiresome direction.
But I think Gilbert redeems herself with one important part: Alma hesitated from publishing her evolution theory not really because she was a woman, but because she thinks the prospect of evolution leaves out the “mystery” of human altruism. Alma cannot account for the goodness and sacrifice of self-interest that she saw in Ambrose and Prudence: “if the natural world was indeed the sphere of amoral and constant struggle for survival that it appeared to be…then what was one supposed to make, for instance, of someone like her sister Prudence?…Alma could answer that question from a moral standpoint (Because Prudence is kind and selfless) but she could not answer if from a biological one (Why do kindness and selflessness exist?)” I was impressed that Gilbert gives this to Alma. This sort of view seems to respect and value a Judeo-Christian view that says, wait: people and our relationships are about more than evolutionary survival. There is something about love for others that is not simply biology, but something that makes us human – something that has, perhaps, to do with the spark of the divine.
It might be appropriate at this point to mention Baruch Spinoza, the 17th century Jewish philosopher. I don’t think it’s entirely a coincidence that the book begins and ends in Amsterdam, Spinoza’s home, though Gilbert herself never explicitly mentions Spinoza. But in Signature, Gilbert seems to be exploring some the complex interchange between science and religion, and with Holland in the picture it’s hard not to think of Spinoza, who in many ways is a symbol (or maybe mascot?) of the tension between those two worlds. * Just a few highlights of this leitmotif throughout the novel:
– Alma encounters several other characters who see “God’s handprint” (or, the “signature of all things”) in the beauty and genius of the natural order of the world; personally she longs to understand the “architect” that created all this natural wonder
-Ambrose is the opposite of Alma’s sensibility and practical-mindedness; he is sort of a Transcendentalist, communing with spirit and the ephemeral and says he can hear the stars singing and so forth
-A crucial character named Tomorrow Morning gives Alma clues to the purpose of her life and that of Ambrose, and he happens to be a preacher
-As mentioned earlier, at the end of her life, Alma finds she cannot account for altruism in biology/evolutionary theory.
It seems to me that Gilbert has presented four viewpoints: 1) Early Alma – reason and rationality behind everything/everything can be explained through scientific processes; 2) bad scientists who use coincidences of biology to ‘prove’ God; 3) bad religion such as people like Ambrose who are spiritual to the point of losing touch 3) late Alma, who believes firmly in her evolutionary theory and loves moss dissection but finds that there is something mysterious and unexplained about human relationships.
Personally, I think Gilbert hits the nail on the head when she has Alma realize that altruism is counterintuitive and makes no “scientific” sense. For me, this is where Torah comes in. I don’t think that the mitzvoth of the Ten Commandments are instinctive in humans. Yes, many people automatically follow them, but that’s because they have been born into a society in which those principles have become norms. But they weren’t “biological” norms, so to speak; they were introduced – that is, they were “revealed.”
Just one more coincidence to mention – Gilbert’s writing, specifically her appreciation of science, reminds me of Rebecca Goldstein. Goldstein has written several novels, including The Mind-Body Problem (another Spinoza reference) with brainy heroines, though hers tend more toward the mathematical/philosophical than biological. But Goldstein also wrote a fun book just about Spinoza:
So between Goldstein’s book, Spinoza background in general, and Signature, I think there’s more than enough to work with here for a Jewish book club session.
Gilbert is such a popular culture darling – she was featured in a recent edition of Oprah’s O magazine – that I wouldn’t be surprised if the timing of this New York Times magazine article was part of a PR effort from her own publisher:
Whatever associations and conclusions one wants to draw between this article and Gilbert’s book, I suspect that a bowdlerized Hollywood version of The Signature of All Things with Roberts or anyone similar, would not do anyone any favors.
*Also, I think there’s a gentle current of pantheism running the book – not only do various characters express wonderment at the order of the natural world, but the title implies a sort of divine stamp in every aspect of nature – and whether or not Spinoza himself was a pantheist, later pantheistic writers drew heavily on his work. According to Goldstein’s book, Spinoza believed not only that “God is immanent in nature, not transcendent” but also that “the difference between right and wrong is immanent within our human nature.” For Spinoza, “logic is sufficient to reveal the very fabric of reality.” I think Gilbert’s Alma believes this for most of her book/life, but certain people and her relationships with them bring her to question those early beliefs.