In one of the chapters of Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert describes the origins of her novel The Signature of All Things, it ties directly into the idea of passion emerging from following a spark of curiosity. This intrigued me and I immediately committed to reading that novel after finishing the book. It’s 3:30 am on Feb 15, as I start this piece. I started the book on Wednesday after publishing the review of Big Magic and I finished the book a couple of hours ago.
This is not a novel with a plot, not really. I think it is best described as a character study, sort of. Gilbert explored the world of botany through a family she invented – the Whittakers – particularly through Alma Whittaker, as we watch her grow up surrounded by botany and then obsessed with botany, herself. The entire book leads up to the emergence of the theory of natural selection.
Elizabeth Gilbert is a master weaver.
I read a few reviews of the book on Goodreads before starting, and many reviewers complained that though the book starts off beautifully and clearly, it devolves into a mess that seems unnecessary and makes no sense – many also called it dull, with too much botanical information that only someone with interest in botany would want to read.
I have little to no interest in botany, I cannot even lay claim to a green thumb. However, I found the book entirely fascinating, because obsession – any obsession – is fascinating to delve into. There was absolutely a reason to almost every event that occurred in the book and absolutely a reason why all that botanical information was laid out and explained. Everything was a foundation for the emergence of the theory that changed the conversation around biology and introduced the idea of evolution so thoroughly to the world – and how it came to be, that Alma became one of the very few to land on that discovery.
All the botanical references were necessary to explain Alma’s obsession with moss. The moss was necessary because it became the vehicle through which she arrived at the idea of natural selection.
Her friendship with George Hawthorne was necessary to aid her entrance into the world of scientific publishing. Her unrequited love for him was a necessary step that lead to further obsession with her work – the discovery and pursuit of moss – and eventually, Ambrose. Ambrose was necessary because without him she would never understand that there was indeed more than just a material world – but he was particularly necessary because were it not for him, she would never have left the confines of White Acre and travelled to Tahiti. Tahiti – and her experiences in Tahiti, particularly when she nearly died – tipped the balance and caused her to start figuring out the theory.
The book is a grand exploration of fate, the role of chance, and congruence. It was such a delight to read, it made me remember why I love novels and why nonfiction books can never entirely replace fiction. Nothing captivates quite like a novel – a novel is a lie that tells a (the?) truth, in a way the truth itself cannot tell.
I’ve committed to reading at least 30 books this year and I’m tracking that on Goodreads. If you’re on Goodreads too, add me and we shall be friends. :)