Summer Book Club Week 3: The Signature of All Things

Guidelines for the Summer Book Club: if you’ve read this book, what did you think?  If not, what are you reading this week? Please comment, or post on your own blog and link in the comments below.

sigofallthingsSometimes I think I just don’t like reading any more.  Then I pick up a book like The Signature of All Things.

If Elizabeth Gilbert, who wrote Eat, Pray, Love and other fine stories, hadn’t been the author, I wouldn’t have given this novel a chance.  There are several strikes against it.  First, it’s a big fat book (499 pages long). Given how short an interlude I have between the end of all my work responsibilities (I finished my last major tasks last Thursday) and their return (the middle of August), and the difficulty I have reading anything for pleasure during the school term, I’m rarely tempted by long books.  Second, the story begins with the birth of the protagonist, Alma Whittaker, in 1800.  I don’t usually care for historical fiction, so this was enough to put me off immediately.  Third, Alma is a botanist, and a lot of the story is about plants.  Now, I love to garden, and I love reading gardening how-to books, but “nature writing” has never been my bag.  (Don’t get me started on Annie Dillard.)

But you don’t have to care about plants, or the 19th century, to love this book.  You just need to care about being told a good story, no matter how long and rich and sprawling it is.

If Jane Austen were writing now, and writing historical rather than contemporary novels, she might write a book like The Signature of All Things. After Alma’s birth, we learn about the life of her father, a plant theif-cum-entrepreneur whose experiences help shape Alma into the scientist she becomes.  We learn about her loving but troubled relationships with her father, her mother, her sister, her mad best friend, and the various men who float in and out of her life.  At the centre of the story are a few  subjects that are both timely and timeless: the opportunities and limitations a woman faces when she is brilliant and homely; the complicated and unexpected forms that love can take; the precarious balance between one’s own happiness and that of others.

The force that drives the reader forward is Alma, who is wonderful: self-possessed and yet self-questioning, perceptive but occasionally shamed by her own blindness, determined to learn about both the natural world and the humans who live in it.  She is surrounded by other wonderful characters, like Hanneke the housekeeper, the only person Alma trusts with her deepest fears and griefs, because Alma knows that sobbing in Hanneke’s arms will bring about real consolation and not empty soothing:

“But I loved him,” Alma said.

Hanneke sighed. “Then you made an expensive error.  You loved a man who thought the world was made of butter.  You loved a man who wished to see stars by daylight.  He was nonsense.”

“He was not nonsense.”

“He was nonsense.

The prose is stunning: precise, transparent, fast-moving, meticulous, and often surprising.  Gilbert describes Alma in one of her writing frenzies as “like a besotted drunk – who can run without falling, but who cannot walk without falling” – this made me laugh out loud.  Portraying the cool childhood relationship between Alma and her recently adopted sister Prudence, Gilbert explains,

Unkind words were never once exchanged.  They respectfully shared an umbrella with each other, arm in arm, whenever they walked in the rain.  They stepped aside for each other at doorways, each willing to let the other pass first….Prudence made for Alma [at Christmas] an exquisite satin pincushion, rendered in Alma’s favorite color, aubergine….”Thank you for the pincushion,” Alma wrote to Prudence, in a short note of considered politeness. “I shall be certain to use it whenever I find myself in need of a pin.”

The novel is riddled with these exquisite moments of characterization, and for this reason, I couldn’t put it down.  Which just goes to show: when it comes to reading novels, it is essential that we put aside our prejudices for the first fifty pages or so, because we never know what we might find.  You might think you don’t like long novels, or historical novels, or novels about the history of science, but maybe that’s because you haven’t yet read The Signature of All Things.

Have you read this book? If so, what did you think?  What about Gilbert’s other work; if you’ve read Eat, Pray, Love or any of her other works, are you a fan?

If not, what are you reading this week?

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12 responses

  1. “Sometimes I just don’t like reading anymore…” Thank you for that opening line because I needed it! I’ve barely read one measly chapter in the past week and felt guilty but then again not all weeks are made for literature but I’m still flipping through Life After Life this week. I really hope to be done in the next week, I swear. I do really enjoy the character of Ursula. She’s different. Transcends her time period without fail. I’m only just seeing her new marriage. Still much to go.

    Which brings me to your book. I’ve wondered about it! I really like Elizabeth Gilbert but felt no need to read this one until you review. The prose and characterization has me convinced. It’s moved towards the top of summer list. Again, the way you share your thinking so clearly and illustrate with precise quotes has me reading like I was having a conversation with someone who knows my reading interest. I feel we may be kindred genre (or lack of gripping historical fiction interests) spirits. I wonder if you have read The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh? I had to be talked into it by my friend who knows I don’t like plants and such (because I’m no good at them) but do love a fascinatingly twisted character. She played to my Gillian Flynn loving heart and I really liked that I read it.

    I did write this week on how I saw The Fault in Our Stars movie with my book club friends:

    http://butlerbin2013.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/reading-life-satisfaction/

  2. BB: one of the reasons I established this “book club” series is that I wanted an incentive to read through the summer. It’s working! Part of the M.O. is to drop books if I’m not loving them, spend as much time as possible browsing at libraries but not bringing home anything unless I’m really excited about it, and occasionally splurging on a new hardcover that I just can’t wait for (bought Herman Koch’s Summer House With Swimming Pool yesterday and I’m SO STOKED.) I haven’t read The Language of Flowers, but I’ll check it out.

  3. I was interested in reading this when it came out – I follow the author on Facebook – but it was low on my list…after reading this, I’m moving it up! BTW, I LOVED Eat, Pray, Love…read it at a time when I was divorcing, so it was perfect timing. Hopefully this one will be just as enjoyable, if not more…

    • Paulette: I also loved Eat, Pray, Love, and just recently handed it over to my husband, who is surprised by how much he’s enjoying it. (I made the mistake of making him watch the Julia Roberts movie with me a few years ago; what a bore. Fortunately, I’d read the book first.) It’s been a long time, but I would say I liked Sig of All Things almost, if not just, as much. I hope you do too!

  4. read Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago, but have not read the new book. This week I read Gregory the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, author of Hunger Games. Gregory is for younger kids and I enjoyed it. It is a fantasy, hero quest that I think I can sell to my fourth graders.

    • MR: I’d be interested in checking that out; with all my friends having babies over the last few years, I need a list of suitable books for primary schoolers. I loved the first book of the Hunger Games, but I lost interest halfway through Book 2; how would you say this one compares?

  5. Thank you for sharing. I love Elizabeth Gilbert, so I will certainly look into The Signature of All Things. Currently, I’m reading The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I can’t put it down. It’s tragic, redemptive, and stunningly written.

    • Dani: I passed by The Namesake at the library yesterday and thought of picking it up; I was already weighed down with a stack of reads, so I passed on it, but maybe I’ll grab it on my next visit!

  6. I loved the Signature of All Things! Loved it!! And I was surprised. The only Elizabeth Gilbert book I have read is Eat, Pray, Love and I really didn’t think that I would be intrigued by a book about moss and plants! But oh, the characters were absolutely amazing and vivid. I was fascinated by every single character. Beautiful, mesmerizing writing. I was torn by wanting to read quickly and find out what happens (a surprising plot!) and slowing down to reread the beautiful passages and enjoy the language. Fabulous read!

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