feminism

The Signature of All Things – Review

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The heroine, Alma Whittaker is the daughter of Henry; an entrepreneur who rebelled against the subservient abeyance of his respectable gardening father and clawed his way to the highest echelons of new wealth in a new world.

Alma exists for the better part of her life in a stifling cocoon of wealth, botany and academia. She is fiercely intelligent, frustratingly naïve and endearingly self-effacing. Her story unfolds within the confines of a vast residence and within a small circle of family, friends and acquaintances where there is scant close relationship or understanding.

The icy reserve of her mother Beatrix, her nanny Hanneke and her adopted sister Prudence exacerbate Alma’s social isolation and encourage her lifelong intimacy with moss and a binding closet. The introduction of Retta does bring a warmer relationship but she is portrayed as such a flibbertigibbet that she is quite hard to grasp.

Alma’s love interest, George Hawkes, is never really described. There is no clear sense of what Alma loves about George. It may be that he is the object of her inexperienced affections because her exposure to the world is so limited that he became the target for her burgeoning sensuality out of mere happenstance. This means there is no emotional oomph and meaty substance to get your teeth into.

Alma is prevented by a powerhouse of a male role model, in Henry, from venturing out and making her own life. Yet, it seems incongruous that a character of keen inquisitiveness, exposed from childhood to the great minds of her time, with such capacity to observe and theorise so adeptly upon her world would not delve deeper into human relationships and push the boundaries of her father’s permission earlier in the story.

Consequently, Alma does not come of age and begin her adventure as an independent woman until very late in life and in the book. Her late blooming and emotional starvation may be an accurate reflection of the constraints upon freedom of expression and female liberty in 19th century Philadelphian society. Yet, this means the reader must persevere to stay with Alma to the end, which could easily have come at least one hundred pages earlier and it is tricky to invest in aloof characters hidden behind a wall of stoicism.

Gilbert beautifully weaves botanical, historical and scientific discovery into a fictional tale. I thoroughly enjoyed the melding of fact with fiction, such as, Henry’s discovery of Jesuit’s bark in Peru and other such curiosities. I smiled at Gilbert’s literary skill and entertaining use of language, colloquial or other, such as the description of Henry as an ‘impudent picaroon, this mackerel-backed shaver, this jack-weighted hob.’

On the whole, The Signature of All Things is a gentle, character-light read carried along smoothly at an evolutionary pace on a bed of botanical wonders.

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The Dentist and the Crossing Lady

Guido-Reni-Martyrdom-of-Saint-Apollonia

Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia, Guido Reni 1575-1642

 

This morning I went to the dentist. He looked barely a day over twenty one and he was just about the height of my chest and I am not tall.  He eventually averted his gaze from my unimpressive cleavage to speak to me about, you know, teeth.  I assured myself that my pelican jumpsuit and grubby, canvas pump ensemble was in no way feminine or revealing enough to be described as ‘asking for it’ or ‘flaunting my wares’ or ‘not leaving much to the imagination’ etc.

So I was caught off guard and somewhat unnerved by his overt lechery.  In all my years of dental visits, I have never experienced this type of thing before.  I would expect it in a bar, if I ever went to a bar.  But when I am putting my health in the hands of another person I am vulnerable and I like a level of professionalism and respect for the patient-doctor relationship.  Nay, I deserve it.  It is my right.  I opted to handle the situation with an aggressive formality that created an even greater discomfort between me and the twerp who had free reign of my oral cavity.

 

‘So Me Dear…what can I do for you?’ he said.

 

It was unusual to be referred to as ‘Me Dear’ by someone so young.  After the examination, he filled out my record.

 

‘Do you pay for your treatment?’ he said.
‘I think so.’
‘Are you employed?’
‘Uh well no, I gave up a long career to write a book so I guess I’m unemployed. But I support myself so I’m not on benefits or anything.’

 

Oh the shame I feel when I try to explain what I do.  I have worked since I was fourteen years old.  And after years of doing the wrong jobs in politically-paralysing environments, which required me to be someone I am not five days a week and subsequently wore away my mental strength, I am doing something I absolutely love.  I am taking a risk.  But the only real risk would be not to have ever tried. That I would regret.

 

So, like most of you, I write and I love it.  And when I successfully ignore statistical probabilities of getting published, then everything is almost peachy-rosy.  Occasionally, the worries spill into my dreams, and I am back in a dusty, old office in a meeting room full of people who cannot say what they mean.  They are afraid.  The first to speak, will be the first to go.  And I try to speak but there is an invisible gag over my mouth and it is the fear of truth that pervades bureaucracy and I can’t breathe.  I can’t go back.

 

Aside from the odd nightmare, this change, this writing thing is blooming wonderful. It’s the happiest I have ever been.  But I don’t like to describe myself as unemployed. Yet, in this society, on the reams of paper and in the dinner party conversations and over the Christmas turkey and Brussel sprouts at the in-laws, I am not a writer until my writing has monetary value.  Therefore, unless someone pays me for that damn book, in the eyes of others I am unemployed.  Employ also means to keep occupied and I am occupied.  I’m occupied in the work of writing and I do it for a lot of hours. And each page I write, to me, has more value in love and emotion and passion and humour and tenacity and integrity, than a year of turning the cogs of a bureaucratic oil tanker so that it can sail in the wrong direction.  I just don’t fit into the boxes any more.

 

‘Well if you’re not on benefits then you have to pay.’ he concluded.

 

The dentist handed my record to the receptionist and whispered indiscreetly:

 

‘Tell her to give me a call for a date when she gets a job.’ I looked at him sharply.
‘Sorry?’ The receptionist looked confused and embarrassed.
‘Uh, nothing,’ he muttered into his notes and took a keen interest in the grey-flecked carpet.

 

I was humiliated and insulted on so many levels. I am about to swear. Please look away now if it may offend you.

 

What a fucking dick! That smarmy little shit-bag, fuck-faced prick.

 

~ The crude and offensive language has reached its denouement.

 

I, a forty year old woman, was being leered at and made a mockery of by that little fucker (apologies for the lapse).  And I know he must have been at least twenty five to qualify so he is old enough to know how to conduct himself in the workplace.  I should have said something.  I should have, but as usual, I did not.  I won’t go back.

 

As a child I had an old, grey-bearded Jewish dentist.  I would sit next to my Dad in the waiting room and try not to look at the mildly grotesque photos of raw, receding gums on the surgery walls.  The dentist’s chair was pale grey and quite comfortable.  Mr Bacher was a kind man. You can tell these things.  His doughy, square fingers smelled metallic like the long-armed tuppence-shaped mirror and probe he expertly wielded with a tap here and a scrape there.  At the end of every appointment he would say: ‘Ah, you’re teeth are veeeerrrry good,’ in his long, drawn out creaking way.  I liked him veeerrry much. He never told me not to drink fizzy drinks or eat too much sugar. On the contrary, he religiously offered me a choice of orange, strawberry or lime-flavoured, boiled-sweet lollypop after each visit.  Orange was my favourite; still is.  He gave me my first filling, naturally.

 

This morning as I walked away from the dentist, I waited at the lights to cross the road and engaged in habitual, internal self-flagellation.

 

‘You’re an idiot. Some little twat made you uncomfortable and you let him get away with it. You’re a grown woman now. You’re pathetic.’

 

I became aware of a pair of wide, blue eyes peering at me in my peripheral vision. Damn, am I saying this out loud, I thought. There was a woman in her sixties with short grey hair. She stood next to me, smiling while we waited for the green man.

 

‘Everyone’s in such a hurry.’ She rolled her eyes and laughed.
‘I know…where are they all going?’

 

I laughed back while weighing up whether she was a. a nice friendly woman, b. certifiably insane, c. about to ask me for the train fare to Bromley or, the most fearful of all d. a God-Botherer.

 

‘I lived in New Zealand for twenty four years. I only came back to look after my Mum. She’s ninety and there’s no one else.’
‘That’s very kind to leave New Zealand for your Mum.’ I replied.

The fuzzy green man walked onto the black felt and we trundled across the road with one, cautious eye on the white van that was growling and edging forward menacingly.

‘Ah well, back to it. Better see she’s alright.’ She waved as she wandered off down the hill.
‘Bye. Have a good day.’ I called.

 

Crossing lady did not ask for money or offer me a badly printed flyer to a church event with a picture of an open-armed bearded bloke in a white robe and a biblical psalm on it. That’s options c and d eliminated. Perhaps all those years in New Zealand, with a population that we would cram into south London alone, has removed her big city fear-field.  And she was a nice woman, and maybe a good sort of bonkers.  I enjoyed a perfectly pleasant, brief encounter with a complete stranger in an over-populated city for the sake of nothing more than congeniality. It was a connection.

 

Too often I spend my days disconnected.  Exchanging niceties with crossing lady over roaring traffic and beeping, flashing men, after tolerating a disrespectful, juvenile dentist, injected humanity back into the sea of empty, grey masks passing by on pavements, in buggies, cars and buses. Crossing lady reached right in and pulled me out of myself. People are more than obstacles to be avoided along the journey from A to B.  There are some days, when no matter how reclusive one feels, the universe insists on pushing through your barriers until you let it in. And so, for better or worse, let it in.

 

Image: The Martyrdom of Saint Apollonia (the patron saint of dentistry) by Guido Reni 1575-1642, source – http://en.wahooart.com/@@/8LJ2ZX-Guido-Reni-Martyrdom-of-Saint-Apollonia