My Christmas wish list had one thing on it this year: a copy of Liz Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things (Penguin Group, 2013). Thankfully, I got it. Then it sat on my shelf for four months. FOUR MONTHS! Ostensibly, it was because I was in the middle of a few other books. Then I found other books to read, and then others. Eventually, I realized I was avoiding reading it. I knew why. Just before Christmas, I (unintentionally) read one negative review of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book. The reviewer panned it, their biggest complaint being that it was really about masturbatory sex.
Well. Combine that with the fact that it was about moss, science, and history (I mean, come on, moss?), and it was almost enough for me to skip it. But I am a Liz Gilbert FAN (the capital letter kind), so I did read it. And loved it. Just exactly as much as I hoped I would.
I love Liz mostly because Eat Pray Love and Committed, as well as every essay, TED Talk, Facebook post and interview she has put out there are all consistent with who she is: a woman on a mission to understand how things work, and make her findings understandable to everyone else through her glorious authorial voice. I loved The Signature of all Things because it does this in a most ambitious way. It is a brave thing, given what many of her peers are writing about (time travel, dystopian futures, and manipulative modern characters like those that inhabit Gillian Flynn’s horrible book Gone Girl), that Gilbert would choose to write a quiet masterpiece about an ugly spinster who lived in the 1800’s and studied the evolutionary habits of mosses as her life work. What could be less sexy? What could be less compelling?
And yet, what could be more powerful?
By imagining a woman of 200 years ago, Gilbert strips her of the labels we paste on women today, and uncovers the timeless issues that face all women. The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittacker, born in 1800 to a rich American botanist. Instead of being petite, beautiful, and smart (the current trend in female protagonists: Hello, Katniss!), Alma is large, unlovely, and smart. Yes, Alma explores her own sexuality, and it is a powerful part of her story, but The Signature of all Things is really about Alma’s quest to assimilate the sum of her experiences, which are profound, into an understandable theory of life. Not everyone, I understand, spends a good part of everyday pondering the very small (at times) or very large (at times) divide between science and spirituality, but I do, and Alma Whittacker certainly does and, thankfully, Liz Gilbert does.
What an ocean of story Gilbert has created for reader’s to immerse themselves in! I surfaced once in a while to marvel at the amount of research (and envy the amount of travel) that went into the book, and then ponder the size of the blender that mixed it in so seamlessly with the story. If you are on the fence about reading this book, just read it. If you love Liz Gilbert, you will likely love it. If you detest Liz Gilbert (maybe Eat Pray Love was a bit too whiney for you?) my guess is you will still find yourself enjoying this book.