With all the flotsam and jetsam that floats by each day, it is heartening to read a book that engages, entertains and edifies one’s view on life, all at the same time. Such is “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert. As you might recall, she became famous for her memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love” which sold 10 million copies, was made into a movie starring Julia Roberts and which has made her rich enough to begin rebuilding (including buying houses for friends) a small town in New Jersey where she lives with a husband whom she married to ensure he could stay in the U.S.A. on a green card. You might think that would be enough to handle in the past few years, along with setting up a shop of imported wares like Buddhas and other Asian things that her husband manages.
But no, apparently, that’s not been enough to occupy her time/life. With the publication of “The Signature of All Things,” Elizabeth Gilbert reveals that she has been busy researching 18th and 19th century botanical history, including the commerce of ocean trade between the West and obscure locations yielding up medicinal plants and potions that ebbed and flowed with plagues, fevers, malaria and other illnesses that could not be treated otherwise than with exotic potions and herbs. She has constructed a tale (that’s the only word for it) of a family, and especially a heroine named Alma Whittaker who is not pretty but is very intelligent, feisty and hard-working who perseveres through a life of disappointments and wishes that go unfulfilled in unwinsome ways. That this story is told in a narrative fashion (“telling” rather than “showing” through dialogue) is a huge relief because stories matter and I’m so glad to be able to simply read for pleasure without having to deal with all the annoying current artificial fads in writing/publishing.
That being said, another bonus in the writing is that for me, at least, the narrator’s voice sounds awfully familiar to that of Jane Austen. In fact, I enjoyed reading this book much more than some Jane Austen’s novels because the humor and wit come easy, comes often and is awe-inspiring in its light touch. So, it even kind of out-Austens Jane, but seems so effortless that it’s not a contest, just fun.
To be honest, I read a lot and am one of those readers who, unless engaged and interested, do not suffer books (or fools) gladly. This is the first book in a long time that I marveled at while laughing out loud. I also appreciated the more sobering discussions about the relationships of all things, (never mind the signature as explained in the novel,) and the spirited attitude of the heroine. I can’t wait to read it again, more slowly this time, and savor the writing of someone who has already won the writing lottery with “Eat, Pray, Love,” a book that I wanted to throw across the room numerous times except for the “Pray” section. Now, against some odds, she has succeeded in writing literature. No wonder Elizabeth Gilbert is smiling in the photos that accompany the book. She’s done what many of us want to accomplish in our lives: to be original in our creativity, to persevere until it is finished and to be published. I wish I had come up with something like this. But it’s more than enough pleasure for me just to hold this volume in my hands and to know I can read it more than once and enjoy it more fully after an astonishing first time through. What a gift!