I fell in love with Elizabeth Gilbert in 2007 along with half of the female population. I read her blockbuster memoir Eat, Pray, Love and was swept away by her incredible personal struggles, wanderlust, and ultimate victory over heartbreak and self-doubt. I also loved her follow-up memoir on marriage Committed: A Love Story. When it was announced her next book would be a novel, I worried I wouldn't love Elizabeth's fiction as much as her reflections.
How wrong I was.
I fell in love with Alma Whittaker, a 19th century botanist and the protagonist of The Signature of All Things, as quickly as I did with Elizabeth. Raised by an adventurous pharmaceutical magnate and his intellectual Dutch wife in post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, I had an obvious affinity to an only daughter allowed to dream and learn and grow as she choses.
However, Alma's intellectualism is as limiting personally as one can imagine it would be for a woman in the 1800s. As she develops a lifelong love affair with moss, her actual love life never quite begins. The central plot point of the novel is the introduction of Ambrose Pike, Alma's one true love who isn't quite what he seems.
I wasn't completely onboard with the introduction on Mr. Pike. I found his character frustrating and difficult to understand. However, his quick exit opens up a life of travel and discovery for Alma that I found enthralling. I loved how Elizabeth used Alma's personal crisis to crack open Alma's long held beliefs about those around her.
I find it one of the hardest lessons of adulthood that our perceptions and emotions almost never represent reality and I ached for Alma as she had to learn this hard lesson over and over again. It is Elizabeth's true gift - whether in memoir or fiction - to make you sympathize with someone learning such a hard lesson in selfishness.
Of course, better for Alma to learn the hard way then not learn at all. We all know people who continue to believe into old age that the universe revolves around them and their emotions. These people are not to be envied in fiction or real life.
I highly recommend this sweeping novel. I hope you love Alma as much as I did.
Have you read The Signature of All Things? Share your thoughts in the comments!