Thursday, January 2, 2014
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
3.0 out of 5 stars - "Anything less than a fight for endurance is a refusal of the great covenant of life."
I started out really liking this book! Set in the early 1800s, the story focuses on Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a self-made wealthy entrepreneur who is born in and lives on a huge estate in Philadelphia, PA. To me, these first chapters were extremely absorbing and fast paced as the reader hears how Henry made his fortune and about his household. Alma's parents were not exactly gushing over their little newborn girl, but during her young years they both nurtured her development of a consuming passion for knowledge and she was allowed access to every part of the activities around the estate.
Midway through, the book fell flat, especially when circumstances call Alma to travel to Tahiti. The rambling about her time there, the long treatises on religion, mysticism, spiritual, supernatural, etc., just didn't absorb me and I didn't really find it interesting. Then there was the really tedious part about her thesis writing (think: Darwin)... I was not sure if I was reading a novel or a textbook at some points. I just wanted Alma's story, not a professional scientific paper! There are huge segments of the book devoted to botanical detail as well.
The story ends with Alma in Holland as an elderly scholar, The Curator of Mosses (her passion).
Overall, the story was interesting, but I really felt like I was getting a lot of lectures in some parts of it. Alma was a very interesting character with a quite unusual life for the time period. She certainly was not a typical female (some of those scenes in the binding closet got really old hearing about). The supporting cast of characters provided not much more than short term foils for Alma as she pursues her dreams and passions but never gets the one thing she really wanted == love of a man. She also falls a bit short in getting the academic respect she so craves, hesitating to publish her thesis, and living in relative obscurity despite her vast knowledge.
Overall, the book had some great writing. The research on the science was very obviously deep and well done. I think a large part of it could be excised without damaging the main story, but I'd recommend it to a serious book club who would love to discuss many of the circumstances that Alma faces.
Thank you to NetGalley and Viking for the ebook ARC to review.