By Carolyn Kellogg
1:30 PM EDT, September 26, 2013
With a charming, flawed heroine straight out of Jane Austen, a Dickensian rags-to-riches story and thwarted romances that hark back to the Brontës, Elizabeth Gilbert has taken cues from the greatest 19th century writers for her big 19th century-style novel, "The Signature of All Things."
Gilbert, who dominated bestseller lists with her memoir "Eat, Pray, Love," is new to historical fiction — but she has plunged into it with a creative passion. She pairs elaborate scenes of life in the 1800s with surprisingly modern twists — like the cache of dirty books her heroine, Alma Whittaker, finds most interesting.
Born in 1800 in Philadelphia, Alma is the daughter of a wealthy plant importer and his Dutch wife, a classically taught European. Alma is physically ungainly and intellectually ambitious; when romance eludes her, she finds a vocation in botany.
As she grows up with the century, Alma's close-up examination of plants causes her to see changes that we come to know as evolution; similarly, she is in step with the age as it tries to find a balance between science and belief.
She focuses on mosses. "This could belong to her! No botanist before her had ever committed himself uniquely to the study of this undervalued phylum," she realizes. "The world had scaled itself down into endless inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in generous miniature."
That small scale is key: Although she is a woman of means, she is bound to her home by family. She doesn't have to make a living, but she has to fill her days, to find meaning where she can. Of course, we all have to find meaning — but for Alma, the need and solution are both thrown into sharp relief.
Alma's modest ambitions are offset by the lives of the men around her. Her father, Henry, born in London in a dirt-floor shed, is a petty thief who eventually winds up rich in America. "How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again," Gilbert writes, reminding us she is in the background, spinning the tale.
The book's first 50 pages tell Henry's story: He joins Captain Cook's third round-the-world voyage and uses his gifts as a naturalist to begin his empire. His trials and successes makes the adult Henry blustery, rude and quick to argue with his dinner guests in Philadelphia, scientists of all types.
It is in this world that Alma grows up, and like a hothouse flower, she is perfectly suited to its environment. She adores her imposing father. She learns five languages, explores the library and battles wits with the adults. Things change, however, when a local tragedy leads her very strait-laced mother to adopt Prudence, another girl her age.
Prudence is everything Alma is not: She is beautiful, graceful and winsome. In an unusual twist, the two never become enemies nor do they become friends. It takes a third young woman, their antic, flibbertigibbet neighbor, Retta Snow, to connect them. The three are like something out of an Austen novel, and that's their period, exactly. As in those classic books, they must eventually go separate ways.
Twenty-five years later, the second important man appears in Alma's life. Ambrose Pike is an unknown, brilliant lithographer whom fortysomething spinster Alma invites to her family's dinner table. When Pike arrives, they click immediately, linked by their parallel obsessions of documenting the plants around them.
Unfortunately, he's as poor as she is rich, not to mention 10 years her junior. And before she knows it, she has fallen for him, and her affection is surprisingly reciprocated. Their connection is interrupted, however, when he must go to Tahiti; a few years later, she follows him.
Gilbert can be a delightful writer, and this book is full of turns of phrase that manage to be both fresh and evoke an antique period. A rich man gets a "drenching inheritance," and when Alma is smitten by Ambrose, "His slightest glance bruised her heart with fearful joy." It is gorgeously detailed, robustly filled with the elements of bygone times and esoteric study.
Until this point, the book really has only two faults. One is of the balance of a sweeping narrative — sometimes things whip by that might have been richer, while other scenes languish. The second is that Alma is at a distance — she's in every scene, but it's hard to feel her emotions. This is partly because she doesn't show much emotion, but when she interacts with the world, we see it passing by as through a camera, not as through the eyes of a person who might have thoughts and feelings about it.
But sending Alma to Tahiti is problematic. She winds up seeking out a mysterious, beautiful Tahitian man: He is charismatic, knowing and sexually liberating. It's hard not to squirm a little at the cultural imperialism, a criticism leveled at "Eat, Pray, Love." ("I have an instinctive reflex reaction to books about white people discovering themselves in brown places," wrote Sandip Roy for New American Media. "I want to gag, shoot and leave.")
Alma eventually leaves the brown people behind for Europe, where she encounters a colleague who couples his scientific discoveries with mysticism. This duality, of course, was the looming question of the late 19th century, raised by the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's "On the Origin of Species": How can evolution and God coexist?
Although her heroine is on the side of empiricism, Gilbert may not be. The book's title comes from 16th century philosopher Jacob Boehme, who believed a divine hand shaped all natural things to reflect their purpose. "Many people considered him an early botanist," Gilbert writes. "Alma's mother, on the other hand, had considered him a cesspool of residual medieval superstition. So there was considerable conflict of opinion surrounding Jacob Boehme."
Clearly an ambitious project, "The Signature of All Things" is successful on many fronts, if not all. That's all right — the most interesting writers, just like scientists, learn by experimentation.
The Signature of All Things
Viking: 512 pp., $28.95
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