By Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the most well known contemporary authors, but her fame is as much a boon as it is a burden. After the wild success of Eat, Pray, Love, my impression of her and her writing was not the most generous--she seemed to hold a place in the market of someone who peddles stylish feel-goodery. Over the years, though, a handful of interviews she gave endeared her to me. None more than when I heard her speak about her then-upcoming book, The Signature of All Things, two years ago. Just a few paragraphs into the novel, it became clear why Gilbert has been such a successful writer: because she is so stinking good at it. Every word is assured and confident, lyrically moving the story along. She can ponder the smallest incidences and the biggest philosophies in the scope of one sentence.
This particular story is told through the life of Alma Whittaker, a truly singular woman, as she journeys through nine decades of life. Born in Philadelphia in 1800 to a wealthy botanist and an educated mother, Alma is given many privileges (except, notably, beauty and grace). Her life is marked by her insatiable need for knowledge, and through diligence she carves out a meaningful life for herself filled with studies, travel, and even love (but not in the ways you would expect). Gilbert avoids making Alma into just the trope of a “badass” woman who refuses to fit the mold of a proper woman. Her emotions, both good and bad, are never shied away from, and her petty jealousies and sweeping heartbreaks are rendered perfectly and genuinely.
Throughout the book, Gilbert constantly highlights the idea that small, slow, steady, unflashy work can still have meaning. Alma studies moss, which may be the slowest and least glamorous plant, but by studying this underestimated specimen, she stumbles upon some of the most important scientific revelations of her time. This outlook neatly coincides with the book’s greatest strength: the largest stories and emotions are conveyed through the smallest moments. Every personal moment of triumph is so rich that it overshadows any narrative climax. A scene where Alma unexpectedly receives a dressing gown from her sister had me blinking away tears despite the fact that almost nothing is happening. Alma never achieves worldwide recognition, but a quiet moment where one peer acknowledges her work and her brilliance is somehow more important and overwhelming.
Like her main character, Gilbert succeeds in extrapolating meaning through through one simple avenue: Alma’s life. The Signature of All Things celebrates the way small things can become microcosms for the rest of the world, but is also a highly readable, well-spun tale about an impressive life.