(SPOILERS AHEAD. Be forewarned…)
Had Jane Austen lived to a ripe old age, I’d like to imagine that she wrote this type of book. It’s a naughtier, wiser, more daring version of, say, Mansfield Park coupled with Sense and Sensibility with maybe a soupçon of Pride and Prejudice thrown in. Not that I’m insisting that Elizabeth Gilbert is the next Jane Austen, mind you, but she comes very close.
This is an exquisitely crafted book. The amount of research and diligence Gilbert devoted to the story is astounding. My experience with Elizabeth Gilbert has been dark and twisty at best. I detested Committed, her follow up to Eat, Pray, Love, and while I did find some redeeming factors in EPL I wasn’t overly fond of its author. Until I listened to a very articulate and funny interview of her with the podcast “Dinner Party Download” talking about her new novel, The Signature of All Things. I love historical fiction, especially those championing women, and the added sinful sex sprinkled into it couldn’t hurt. All in all, it sounded just like my taste in books. To add to my recent “in like” status with Elizabeth Gilbert, I started following her on Twitter and find her delightful.
I’m happy to say that this novel is so dramatically different from her memoirs, and in a good way. Once she gets on the topic of herself she loses me, but as soon as she focuses on another woman’s struggles and desires she absolutely soars. It is, however, easy to see that there is a lot of Gilbert in her main character, Alma Whittaker. Alma is a meticulous researcher; check mark for Gilbert. Alma is a seeker of knowledge, on an eternal quest to know more; another check mark for Gilbert. Alma questions everything. If you’ve read Committed before then you can easily see the author within the pages of her novel. Alma can be frustratingly stubborn, overbearing, generous and selfish all at the same time. I think we might find a little bit of Elizabeth Gilbert in these traits as well. In short, she’s a HUMAN.
But Alma is indeed a flawed human as well, and this is why she works as a protagonist. One of the major complaints I’ve read in other reviews about this book is that the other characters are far more interesting. True, Alma is not the most exciting character in the book, but she is the most believable. Retta, Alma’s childhood friend, is a ridiculous character, who was never fully flushed out enough to stand as a realistic person. I would have loved for Gilbert to explore the sister relationship between Prudence and Alma further and not wrap up their mutual uneasiness with each other through a series of letters. I didn’t particularly care for the love triangle between Retta, Alma, and Prudence with the fellow scientist George Hawks. To me, having all three young women in love with the same man was a literary cop out (and echoes of Elinor in Sense and Sensibility come to mind). Also, I frankly didn’t think he was that worthy of a person especially since he only married Retta, an obviously troubled and mentally ill person, because he couldn’t have Prudence and wasn’t interested in Alma, and then he just leaves her at a sanitarium and probably never saw her again.
The story is slow, but it’s meant to be. Alma is a self-trained botanist who studies mosses and nature and has her own theories on the ebb and flow of time- natural, divine, and human. The pace of the novel mirrors her lifelong journey to understand nature and her place within it. My only irk, my one main complaint with the entire book is the dialogue. While Gilbert is gifted with her use of language and writing about complex subjects in such a beautiful and poignant way, she is terrible at writing dialogue. It hurts me to say this because I did think the bulk of the novel is terrific. But every time there is a scene between two characters and large amounts of dialogue are required, the pacing in the story slows down to a crawl. Examples include scenes between Ambrose Pike and Alma, along with Alma and the Reverend Wells. Each character speaks WAY too much on a subject, and then over explains it nearly every other sentence, just to make sure the reader got the point. We got it. Meanwhile, in the middle of the other character’s soliloquy, Alma has about a page and a half of internal dialogue. Zzzzzzz….
Not only is the dialogue slightly painful to get through at times, much of the conflict that arises between these characters could have been easily solved if only Alma just asked the one damn question she couldn’t bring herself to ask. In this way, the novel reads like an episode of “Three’s Company” set in the Victorian Age. It’s unbelievably frustrating but, I will grudgingly admit, probably realistic for the time Alma was living in. It must have been so incredibly exhausting to be polite and proper all of the time! Cue Jane Austen in her later years: I’m sure she would have LOVED to yank off the white gloves and let loose.
I realize that this novel is not going to appeal to everyone, but I really enjoyed it. I respect the time and thoughtfulness that Gilbert took to create it. In fact, Gilbert could have created 5 separate novellas with nearly all the characters if she wanted to. Not an easy breezy read, but a worthwhile one in the end.