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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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I held her hair back in a ponytail while she puked in the loo.  It was auburn and thick in my grasp and I envied her its weight and tone and sheen. I admired her freckles and her translucent skin and I wished for long legs like hers that didn’t meet in the middle and rub together, like mine. And I wanted her C cup to boot and her clothes and her confidence and her smartness. Heather was so ‘very’. But I was slower and rounder and softer and fatter and I bulged and I bulge. Why do we not look in the mirror at fourteen and say: ‘this is exactly who I wish to be?’  What power, what strength I could have had.  And I’ll bet I’d have been less likely to put up with that philandering twat who walloped me in the face and the rest, if I’d known what was what and who was who.

 

Best friends. We were best friends and I loved her. She was mean at times but her sharp manner and prickly bearing only made me want to be her friend more, as though fear was to be respected and her kindness to be won. I admired her. I admired her rabbits and her cats and her dog and her leather jackets and her ability to get to Level 28 in Chuckie Egg.  And she had a way, when the notion took her, of shining a light on me. To be in the glow of her attentions was to feel like I’d made it. It was like I met her high, unforgiving standards of success that she placed on herself and those around her. And in a way, I believe that she wanted me to be like her because it was her way of loving. It was her way of being a friend.

 

But she could not see the goodness in me because I had different dreams. I wanted to say: ‘What are you striving for? Why are you trying so hard to beat time and money and life and everyone around you? Whoever said we could or should have it all should be…corrected. It’s too much. We don’t need it all. We just need enough to get by. The rest is just plastic packaging and polystyrene foam; non-biodegradable clutter. You are exactly who you should be, exactly who you are and the only thing you need to do is be good at being you.’

 

But I did not say it and with a scuffle and a spark and ruffled quills in the hen house, thirty years of laughter and fighting and adventure and caring and bitching and sharing has come to to an end.

 

Goodbye Heather.  Goodbye and Goodnight.

 

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Image 1: Sourced at excellent blog here: http://ttylusa.wordpress.com/2012/12/05/movie-mania-heathers/

Image 2: Two Old Ladies, Dave Beckerman at http://www.beckermanphoto.com/blog/street-photography-black-and-white/