A book review by Madhuri; “A juicy, original, very absorbing read.”
The Signature of All Things
by Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
This sweeping historical saga endeavours to find a bridge between science and mysticism – and – less convincingly – blunders, I think, into some confusion about the relationship between sex and superconsciousness: though this last might just be a reflection of the age in which it is set. Laudably, the book also robustly supports the idea of women working in science as being a good and natural thing.
The first half of the book is given over to a very grounded scientific atmosphere: early 1800’s, wealthy English-Dutch family with a botanical import business, living in Pennsylvania. Big, homely, brainy daughter Alma becomes an expert in mosses. She suffers hopeless disappointment in love. Her discovery of her own sexuality is finely-wrought and compassionately played out – she is a passionate girl, and plot changes hinge on this ultimately wholly inconvenient fact.
A handsome, otherworldly young orchid lithographer comes along and she falls in love again… At this point we start hearing a lot about angels and ‘swinging into the fire’ and raptures and the youthful bout of mental illness – or was it transcendence? – the young man has experienced. Alma’s scientific mind rebels.
Up to now – and Alma is 48 by this time – we’ve stayed in Pennsylvania, in a grand estate. Suddenly we take off to Tahiti, where many adventures await – all eccentric enough that they are utterly believable. And Alma, always a scientist, even in the midst of awful emotional tribulations, eventually comes up with a theory to explain the same thing Charles Darwin was working on trying to explain… evolution.
Elizabeth Gilbert, whose most famous book is Eat Pray Love, is a very engaging writer. Indeed, she has a strange way of reaching into my own life and pulling me in to her books. She has a character, a diminutive preacher who celebrates everything, on a South Sea island – and I once wrote a long story about just such a man – so I kept getting these two overlaid on each other as I read!
Then, Alma puts out a theory that there are 3 kinds of time: Human Time, Geological Time, and Divine Time. I have also noticed this, and use it in my Human Design sessions to try to help people slow down. (I call the third kind Cosmic Time, and it’s more just an inchoate sense of things than a crisp formulation.) Alma, delightfully, then adds one more: Moss Time. (I too am very fond of mosses, having once, on a midnight hike in the cool sunshine of the Norwegian Arctic, bounced on a bed of them at least 10 feet deep. And, as a child of the California desert, I find mosses a sort of epitome of all that is good, green, and soothing.) There is a moss cave in the book, and Alma says it is not for everyone – only those who like quiet. I am sure many readers will long to sit inside one!
There is quite a lot about sexuality in the book, but nothing transcendental ever happens with it. There remains a great gap between lust and inner flying – which is partly explained by the differing temperaments of the people involved; but with Elizabeth Gilbert’s explorations into spirituality I’m a bit surprised by this. We just get a tragi-comedy of errors and frustration… but this way it is perhaps more accurate historically.
There are sub-themes: sibling rivalry, abolition, the sins (and diseases) of imperialism.
The book is certainly impressive – a big, fat, tour-de-force – and the photo of the author inside the back cover looks quite pleased with itself! And so it should – it is an astonishing accomplishment. (I counted how many people she thanked in the Thank Yous at the end: 59, plus “all women of science throughout history.” An enormous endeavour!)
A juicy, original, very absorbing read. Yet I was left wondering what her message was – and if she knew it herself. Perhaps she was just celebrating The Weirdness of All Things, along with praising women scientists and noting, seemingly without complaint, the fragile nature of romantic love.
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