The book is released tomorrow and already it's generating great acclaim, including a very positive front-page review in the New York Times from Barbara Kingsolver. Publicity and buzz are one thing, but it's so rewarding when the writing justifies all the attention. Below is my spoiler-free review.
If you're in the New York area, she'll be at the Barnes & Noble in Union Square tomorrow night kicking off her book tour. Here are the other details on her tour.
In telling Alma’s story, Gilbert, best know for her memoirs, Eat, Pray, Love and Committed, confidently reaches back in time to tell the story of a woman whose thirst for information and knowledge knows no bounds, a heroine who would be at home in the a novel by Dickens or Eliot. “She wished to live within humanity’s most recent moment, at the cusp of invention and progress,” Gilbert tells us. Born the daughter of a wealthy trader, Alma is privileged not only by wealth, but also by the freedom to explore nature and all its wonders in a large estate outside of Philadelphia named White Acre.
Alma’s passion is botany, and within the realm of botany, moss. While this may sound like frightfully dull subject matter (there’s talk of “Human Time”, “Divine Time”, and “Moss Time”), Gilbert makes Alma’s discoveries compelling and informational. Gilbert has clearly done her research, especially when she brings to life such remote places as Tahiti, Amsterdam, and Peru. The early chapters featuring Alma’s father’s voyages are particularly captivating.
Gilbert has a lot of years and a lot of progress to cover, starting the novel in January 1800, and moving forward in broad historical strokes. Yet for all the vastness of its canvas, the novel remains accessible and intimate, never veering from core relationships of Alma, her parents, sister and love interests.
Without giving away too much, it’s the love interests that lend the novel real gusto. Gilbert is frank in giving Alma a sense of sexuality and lustfulness (there’s a particular binding closet that sees a lot of action) and Alma’s search for fulfillment and its consequences create plenty of memorable emotional and sensual exchanges.
Alma isn’t the kind of heroine one is likely to forget. At times headstrong, selfish, irrepressible, aggressive, she, “knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died.” But all the while she heeds her mother’s call to retain her dignity, which is something she admires in the mosses she studies. “If the mosses had known how soon Alma Whittaker would be gone, they might pity her.”
Although a 500-page novel about a nineteenth-century female botanist may not be on the top of a fiction reader’s wish list, there good news is that The Signature of All Things is accessible and enjoyable. It’s the type of novel that refreshingly defies easy categorization, taking readers on a worthwhile trip through time and the basic human need to understand the world around us.
“All her life, she felt, she had lived in a state of speculation. All she ever wanted was to know things, yet still and now—even after all these years of tireless questioning—all she did was ponder and wonder and guess.”