Once in a while, a book comes along that grabs you by the neck and keeps you hooked until the final page is turned, and then leaves you yearning painfully for more. An author I deeply admire, Elizabeth Gilbert first blew me away with Eat, Pray, Love in the New Year of 2006-07 in Houston. On a journey myself, her insights struck a chord with almost every sentence, and I knew I’d been privy to something quite magical, something that ignited that most powerful of human emotions — hope.
I then read Committed and valued it as a study of marriage in modern times, but it did not leave me with earth-shattering revelations. And The Signature of All Things? I did not expect a novel from Gilbert, and there was no big marketing hoopla around it. It just landed up in the mail. And when you don’t expect something, it has all the more power to floor you over because you enter it with zero expectations, zero jugdements. And like a fish with its guard down, I was hooked, line and sinker.
Set in early 19th-century Europe and America when science was quickly gaining popularity for making better sense than religion when it came to explaining the language of the universe, the novel — Gilbert’s second in 13 years — traces the rich life of Alma Whittaker, the only daughter of a passionate botanical explorer and his very rational Dutch wife. Though her father had to struggle up from modest roots, little Alma grew up in flamboyant luxury as her father set about establishing his botanical and pharmaceutical businesses around the world. Trained in all the natural sciences, she was a nerd with a large intellectual chip on her shoulder, an identity that faced its first tremor when her parents adopted a poor little orphan when Alma was 10 years old. Suddenly, Alma’s plain looks stood out in stark contrast to the delicate beauty in their midst, challenging all her notions of superiority; and thus began her real journey towards becoming a whole human being.
But sibling rivalry is only a fraction of the themes discussed in this book that’s large in both size and scope: There’s love and rejection; ambition and gender bias; lust and humiliation; desire and the dawning of realisation. Alma runs their large estate after her mother’s death and her father’s business when he passes away too, staying single mostly due to lack of suitable opportunities for super-intelligent, cloistered, unattractive women. She explores her mind and body; she watches her family and friends overcome or succumb to the ravages of relationships and time; she watches the world change as she delves into the mysteries of mosses, making those organic marvels the most important subject of her life.
Then she meets a man who, with his radiant innocence, forces her to seek the divine — the signature of all things. And so, for the first time, the middle-aged but robust Alma leaves the town she has lived in all her life and travels to another side of the globe. The subsequent chapters take us from Philadelphia to Tahiti and finally to Amsterdam, real scientific theories beautifully woven into masterful fiction, educating and uplifting the reader at the same time.
Seamlessly bringing science and spirituality together, Gilbert’s three-and-a-half-years of research pay rich dividends, and the book scores high on both counts, ending on a note of quiet wisdom and touching universality. It’s a stupendous work from a supremely talented writer. If there’s one book you read all year, make it this one.