It’s been a long time since I read a novel with as deeply developed a character as Alma Whittaker in Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things. It is easy to feel that Alma is as real — if not more so — than some of the real-life characters in the novel. Then again, The Signature of All Things is all Alma’s story, from birth to the brink of her death in old age, so it is important that she be interesting enough to carry us through the 500+ pages.
Alma’s life spans the nineteenth century. She is born into a wealthy, immigrant Pennsylvanian family. Her English father is an uneducated but highly resourceful merchant of medicinal plants. Her mother is a member of a family of famous Dutch botanists. Alma and her adopted sister Prudence are given spectacular classical educations and encouraged to precociousness. But whereas Prudence is beautiful and draws male attention, Alma, we are constantly reminded, is not. No suitors come calling for her, particularly the one man she hopes will return her affection but never does. Gilbert makes such a point of letting us know how ugly and unattractive Alma is that it made me quite sad for her.
But luckily, Alma is smart, resourceful, and hyper-educated, and has funds to spare. She ends up devoting her spinster life to the study of botany, particularly mosses, while also caring for her father and his business interests as he ages. She becomes an international expert on mosses, writes books, and conducts a life filled with the purpose of study instead of love or motherhood. But in her early 50s, Alma meets a man who illustrates orchids. He’s younger than her and very attractive, but he shares her naturalist interests and seems to love her despite her plainness. She falls in love and they marry, but her marriage is not what she hopes for. It’s really from this point in the novel that the novel’s purpose–Alma’s transformation–begins.
One of the most obvious and yet wonderful things about this novel is how Alma’s life and scientific journey are deeply entwined with the real-world history of scientific discovery, particularly botany, taxonomy, and similar sciences, that was exploding in the nineteenth century. You can tell that Gilbert wallowed gleefully in her research–on mosses, on the propagation of vanilla and medicinal plants, on the historical trade and market demands for botanicals, and on Darwin and the other giants of science who appear in this book — if only by association. Gilbert learned it all so well that she is able to weave Alma’s story around and among real people and places and ideas in a delightful and believable way. Also, this period of history, with its marauding Western naturalists, is fascinating.
Although I own a copy of this book, I ended up listening to it as an audiobook. Certain aspects of Gilbert’s writing style were really emphasized by listening rather than reading. Gilbert has a tendency to construct passages, both long and short, repetitively, like this:
There was the threesome of enormous mastodon ribs in the front atrium, dug up in a nearby field by a local farmer, who traded it to Henry for a new rifle. There was the ballroom, gleaming and empty, where once — in the chill of late autumn — Alma had encountered a trapped hummingbird….There was the caged mynah bird in her father’s study….There were rare snakeskins with a filling of straw and sawdust. There were shelves stocked with South Sea coral, Javanese idols, ancient Egyptian jewelry of lapis lazuli, and dusty Turkish almanacs.
These “there was/were” paragraphs go on for several pages. And again:
In her ninth summer, completely on her own, Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o’clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o’clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened. When the clock struck seven, the dandelions would bloom. At eight o’clock it was the scarlet pimpernel’s turn. Nine o’clock: chickweed, Ten o’clock: meadow saffron. By eleven o’clock, the process begins to reverse. At noon, goatsbeard closes. At one o’clock, chickweed…
And that paragraph, charming as it is, goes on. On one hand, this construction lends itself to sharing a dazzling amount of interesting detail that helps the build up a rich exposition of Alma and her life. But Gilbert almost uses this construction like a crutch, and its frequency was really noticeable — even distracting — when listening.
But Alma is such a wonderful character — I feel like I knew her so well!– and she is reason enough to read this novel.