Alma Whittaker was born at the dawn of the 19th century. Her father, Henry, had pulled himself out of poverty and built a thriving business that made him the wealthiest man in Philadelphia. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, was an intellectual from Holland who married the enterprising young businessman because “she liked what she saw in him.” Together, they built a home that prized knowledge and debate and clear thinking, and Alma was brought up to prize these things, too. She was from the start a seeker of knowledge:
She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance. She demanded to know why a pony was not a baby horse. She demanded to know why sparks were born when she drew her hand across her sheets on a hot summer’s night. She not only demanded to know whether mushrooms were plants or animals, but also—when given the answer—demanded to know why this was certain.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma’s pursuit of answers to all questions, from her backyard garden to the island of Tahiti and beyond. Alma is a truth seeker, but truth is not easy to pin down. When Alma is young, she finds answers in books and she sorts facts into categories, making botany her primary field of study.
Alma was a girl possessed by a soaring enthusiasm for systems, sequence, pigeonholing, and indexes; botany provided ample opportunity to indulge in all these pleasures. She appreciated how, once you had put a plant into the correct taxonomical order, it stayed in order. There were serious mathematical rule inherent in the symmetry of plants, too, and Alma found serenity and reverence in those rules. In every species, for instance, there is a fixed ratio between the teeth of the calyx and the divisions of the corolla, and that ratio never changes. One could set one’s clock to it. It was an abiding, comforting, unfaltering law.
The trouble is, few things in the world operate by these clear laws, most especially people. Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence, appears to be little more than a decorative object, with hardly a thought in her head, but she has a steely resolve. Their friend Retta, who appears always cheerful, suffers a mental anguish none could have predicted. One of the pleasures of this book is that way characters step beyond the categories I, as a reader, kept slotting them into.
Alma herself, with her orderly mind, has secret sexual desires that cause her to step beyond the bounds of rational knowledge. But this awakening is not the stereotypical story of a buttoned-up scholar giving in to lust and finding her true self. What happens is far more complicated—and rather comical. The crucial moment comes at the hands of another truth seeker, Ambrose Pike, an artist who specializes in lithographs of orchids. Pike, like Alma, is a truth seeker, but he seeks truth in a different way. When he looks at the world, he is searching for God’s signature. He tells Alma,
“I wish to arrive at revelation on wings, while you advance steadily on foot, magnifying glass in hand. I am a smattering wanderer, seeking God within the outer contours, searching for a new way of knowing. You stand upon the ground, and consider the evidence inch by inch. Your way is more rational and more methodical, but I cannot change my way.
… for me, to experience life through mere reason is to feel about in the dark for God’s face while wearing heavy gloves. It is not enough only to study and depict and describe. One must sometimes … leap.”
Can these two ways of knowing coexist? For Alma, they can’t without serious misunderstanding. So she plods along through the rest of her life, trying to understand what happened between her and Ambrose and who Ambrose really was. Here, again, the book took multiple turns with a character, giving us someone who ultimately cannot be easily categorized, much as the other characters try to do so. One revelation had me ready to put down the book because it seemed so tiresomely obvious, but Alma doesn’t rest with the tiresomely obvious. She demands to know why it is certain that this is who Ambrose is. And the answer isn’t so obvious after all.
Alma’s science, likewise, requires a rethinking of old categories as she notes how species of algae could easily slide into the category of mosses. It takes her a long time to grasp the significance of this, but then she takes a leap and has the answer. However, this answer only raises more questions, and Alma will not rest until she knows. But is full knowledge ever possible? Each answer raises more questions.
The Signature of All Things is an ambitious book and, often, quite entertaining. It’s certainly a cut above a lot of historical fiction that’s just about how different it was back then (with a subtext of how much better—or worse—it is now). There are some plot points that are rather ridiculous and some descriptions that are far more detailed than necessary. Some characters are underutilized. Retta in particular seems like a plot device, and I think there was a great story to be told there. But I appreciated what Gilbert tried to do with this book. I liked how it surprised me, even if a couple of the surprises were a little goofy. (OK, a lot goofy.) I wasn’t sure what I would make of this—opinions have been so divided!—but I liked it more than not.