Book review: The botany of desire blooms


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After taking a detour into nonfiction with her best selling memoir, "Eat, Pray, Love" and then "Committed," Elizabeth Gilbert has made an outstanding return to her novel writing roots with "The Signature of All Things."

In the book, we catch Alma at the moment of her birth in 1800 and follow her through a lifetime. Sometimes affectionately called "Plum," Alma is the daughter of Henry Whittaker, a rough, poor-born man who made his fortune through botany and the South American Quinine trade.

Alma Whittaker is not your typical 19th-century heroine. She studies botany extensively, publishes work in scientific journals and holds her own against the inventors, artists, scientists and other academic minds crowding around her father's famous dinner table.

As the daughter of the richest, most unconventional family in Philadelphia, Alma has a strange upbringing for her time period. Early on in her life, Henry and her mother, Beatrix, teach her to question everything and to seek answers for herself.

"THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS"

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking ($28.95)

While other girls her age are collecting ribbons and buttons, Alma is collecting clippings and specimens for her private herbarium. While they're exploring doll houses, Alma is exploring the greenhouses and scientific treasures at White Acre. While they're being trained to paint beautiful scenery, Alma is making scientific sketches.

Ms. Gilbert divides the novel into five distinct parts, each, with the exception of the first, chronicling a new stage of discovery in Alma's life. We witness her developing interest in botany and see her through her first love, sexual awakening and heartbreak. We're with her when she discovers the potential of mosses and takes her first step into developing a theory of evolution.

Through Ms. Gilbert's rich narrative, we're also introduced to the colorful cast of characters surrounding Alma. There is Prudence, her beautiful adopted sister who, while cold and distant, makes sacrifices for Alma. Retta Snow, her first true friend who manages to charm the Whittaker household. George Hawkes, her first love and heartbreak, and Hanneke De Groot, her faithful nursemaid who doles out much needed tough love.

It is not until May 1848, years after Beatrix has died and Henry's health has been in decline, that Alma meets her match in Ambrose, a botanical artist. The two become inseparable, sharing everything from ideas to personal histories.

Ambrose's gentle nature and spiritual outlook on life and science force Alma to step outside the structure and logic of her scientific upbringing. When the unexpected tears them apart and tragedy strikes, Alma is left alone and free for the first time in her life. She gives most of her money and estates to Prudence and embarks on an adventure that will take her from Tahiti to the Netherlands, toward closure and a scientific discovery that could change the world.

"The Signature of All Things" spans almost a century; Ms. Gilbert seamlessly integrates her character's stories into historical context. In his youth, Henry encounters important historical figures; the great botanist, Sir Joseph Bank, sends him on a sea voyage on Captain Cook's ship. As an adult, Prudence becomes a staunch abolitionist and loses a son in the Civil War.

Alma sees the world through the lens of her scientific studies, and the abolitionist movement and the civil war she lives through are vague worries, only touching her because of her relationship with Prudence. The scientific developments of the 1800s, however, are in clear focus.

Despite all the historical and scientific references, the novel never becomes heavy or dull. The words leap off the page energetically and take readers along for the ride. Ms. Gilbert's masterful grasp of language makes everything sound new and exciting, witty or amusing.

For example, Henry doesn't just make money, it "followed him around like a small excited dog." Moss isn't just moss to Alma, it is "the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle." The orchid in one of Ambrose's exquisite lithographs has pink lobes that look "like something a fairy would don for a fancy dress ball."

"The Signature of All Things" has a little bit of something for everyone. There are travels across the South Seas, scientific discovery, romance, history and the opportunity to ponder life's mysteries.

 


Kitoko Chargois (kchargois@chatham.edu) is the editor-in-chief of the Chatham Communique.

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