BY TARAH CHILDES
“The signature of all things” is a term first used by 16th Century German mystic and theologian Jacob Boehme to describe the idea that God had inscribed himself within nature and had “hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit and tree on earth”. In much the same way as Boehme’s God leaves his indelible mark on all he creates, so Gilbert leaves hers — though to much less satisfactory results.
Our dejected heroine in Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, is one Alma Whittaker, born at the cusp of the 19th Century to Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, the wealthiest inhabitants of Philadelphia and most likely all of America. While Alma is not beautiful, being “tall and mannish, flinty and freckled, large of bone, thick of knuckle, square of hip and hard of chest”, she is intelligent and part of a powerful family, thanks her shrewd father’s business importing exotic plants.
While Alma’s unfortunate looks and exceptional intelligence fail to secure her a man (they fall instead for her bimbo friend and icy but beautiful sister), it does leave her the time to develop a keen interest in the study of plants, mosses to be exact. In addition to her father’s botanical collection, she also has access to his generous library, in which she learns about 18th Century pornography from explicit books such as Cum Grano Salis. Thus does Alma while away the years, measuring her life like her mosses “in generous miniature” and furiously masturbating in the dark.
Gilbert’s narrative voice is twee; her pseudo 19th Centuty tone peppered with cutesy words like “helpmeet” and “comport” which labour to evoke a romanticised era past. However, what she lacks in voice she makes up for in plot as one is continually propelled through the novel by the simple question: will Alma ever get lucky?
Years later, when a gifted young lithographer arrives on the Whittaker estate, her romantic prospects improve. However, her dreams of intimacy and sex are thwarted yet again when her flighty and mentally unsound object of affection, the aptly named Ambrose Pike, refuses to consummate their hasty marriage. In her rage and shame she dismisses him to her father’s plantation in Tahiti.
In a plot change that smacks of Gilbert’s megalithic self-help memoir Eat, Pray, Love, upon the death of her shortlived husband, Alma leaves the confines of her Philadelphia mansion and journeys to Tahiti in search of answers and discovery. Along the way she hones her moss studies and comes to the equivalent of Charles Darwin’s natural selection theory, though she finds the idea of human altruism at odds with her otherwise sound theory. Oh, she also finds a man who will finally have sex with her, culminating in a steamy scene set in a moss-filled cave.
The Signature of All Things marks Elizabeth Gilbert’s return to fiction, after a 12 year gap. While her latest endeavour is seemingly worlds (and centuries) apart from her previous publications, one is still left with the impression that while she boldly tackles the ideas of science, women in history and progression; she is still writing for the same love-starved, embittered audience of middle-aged divorcees she garnered with Eat, Pray, Love.