Botany of Desire, on Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things

I read the ARC of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love months before it came out and thought it a pretty tremendous book. I had read The Last American Man and fallen in love with her writing. Yes, Eat, Pray, Love was a bit of navel-gazing but give me a break. Haven’t many other, way more horribly written books gotten onto bestseller lists (I’m looking at you, 50 Shades)? When it came out, I tried to handsell it, featured it in as many displays as I could, and generally talked it up to those who might listen. We sold it modestly. And then as you all know, it happened. Word of mouth, Oprah, what-have-you, everyone read this book. And the backlash began. Sales soared. Haters hated.

It was with bated breath that I cracked opened Gilbert’s newest novel The Signature of All Things. My Penguin reps swore it was amazing. At BEA this past May, several bookseller friends highly recommended it. I began. And reader? I didn’t want it to end. This is not to say that it’s a perfect book, but it’s so terrifically absorbing. Gilbert adopts a sort of George Eliot meets Dickens meets ????? tone, which somehow works. It’s the story of Alma Whittaker, daughter of one of the wealthiest men in the New World, noted botanist particularly of moss, scholar of repute.  The strength of Whittaker’s scholarship and extent of her freedom in the 19th century seem somewhat anachronistic, but her family and background make it just plausible .

Some of the descriptions tickled me, like the description of her father’s finances: “Money seemed to love Henry. Money followed him around like a small, excited dog.”

It’s only when Alma is in her late 40s that a plot arises. An engraver named Ambrose Pike arrives, who captivates our heroine. He’s no money-grubber however, but looking for spiritual completion. He thinks he’s found it in Alma. I won’t spoil the plot, but she does light out for Tahiti.

Science plays a huge role in the novel–it’s a character in its own right. Gilbert has done extensive research and knows her botany, and it shows in the way she makes bryophytes interesting.

I think I’m just trying to find reasons to convince people to read this book. I’m afraid that many who read Eat, Pray, Love will take one look at this novel and be turned off by its length and depth, while the haters will dismiss it as another “chicklit” entry. Both are wrong. Normally I’m an advocate of judging books by their covers, but in this case, opening the book up and starting on page one is the best choice. You won’t regret it.

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