Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Book Review: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

I knew literally nothing about this book before reading it except that it is Elizabeth Gilbert's new book and I like her, lol. I loved Eat Pray Love and I've watched her on TED Talks and I just really like her not only as a writer but as a person. So when I saw she had another book out, I signed up to read it. I had to wait quite a while for my turn at it (it's incredibly popular at the local library), and my chance came up a few weeks ago.

I found this book ... interesting. I guess that's a nice way to put it, right? The book itself follows the Whitaker family, starting with Henry - a sneaky teenager whose father works at a famous botanical garden in London. The botanist is very possessive of his exotic plants that he brought back from his explorations and will never allow anyone else to have any, no matter what prestigious garden they are from. So Henry starts a little side business selling small cuttings of the plants to these jilted plant lovers. Henry eventually is discovered and the botanist decides to put his botanical prowess to good use and sends him on an expedition to the Andes. He does several years of research on the plant that produces quinine, even brings back the first successful clippings to be grown elsewhere, only to have his botanist boss snub him and his ideas. So Henry takes all of his research with him and within 3 days is employed with the Dutch East India Company. He starts a plantation for them to grow the popular Jesuit's Bark and makes himself incredibly rich. He marries a very intelligent and stern Dutch girl and runs away to start his life with her in Pennsylvania.

Henry and his wife have one daughter, Alma, and eventually adopt another, Prudence. The two girls are incredibly different from each other. Alma is fairly homely and very large for a girl while Prudence is reputed to be the most beautiful girl in Philadelphia. Alma devotes herself to botany and proves to be a very good scholar, even publishing papers in her teens. The bulk of the book becomes the story of Alma. She never marries, so she advances her studies and research. She becomes a very respected member of the botanical community, even in spite of the fact that she is a woman. Life goes on and when she is almost 50 years old a man turns up that changes her forever. Ambrose is the best botanical artist that anyone had seen at the time, but he had been living in South America for 18 years so no one has heard of him. Alma takes him under her wing, allowing him to stay at the Whitaker estate while helping to get his work published. Ambrose is very attractive and in his mid thirties. Alma and Ambrose fall very much in love with each other, but it is still a surprise when Ambrose proposes. The two of them get married quietly, and then everything falls apart.

I don't want to give too much else away, but at this point the book gets pretty ... weird ... well weird-er. I found the book to be oddly sexual. There's really no other way to put it. There weren't any "bodice ripping" scenes or anything, but things are described in quite a bit of detail and Alma is kind of preoccupied with sex in my opinion. It seems strange to dwell so much on it, frankly, and this really upset the rest of the story for me. Mingled right in there is the constant question of spirituality, especially once Ambrose comes into the picture, and while I know this is kind of a thing with Liz Gilbert, it just came off really strange to me in this book. I really enjoyed the whole first section with the story of Henry Whitaker, but I just couldn't get around certain oddities with the story of Alma and it just never came around for me after that. The book is definitely very well written, but I wish I had been warned about everything else. I give this book 3 out of 5 stars.

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