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Monday, January 06, 2014

Book Review : 'The Signature of All Things' by Elizabeth Gilbert

This book by Elizabeth Gilbert was my first ever read of the author who had written ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. Obviously, I was under the impression that it might be a self-help book and was a little worried, when I first opened it. ‘The Signature of All Things’ took me by surprise. 

Coincidentally,  a) 5th of January was the day I started the book, (yesterday) and also b) my father’s birthday, and it was c) the birthday of the heroine of the book, Alma Whittaker. Too many coincidences, perhaps but it had my attention, alright.

The book began with how Alma was born, before slipping into the history of her father, Henry Whittaker. Henry was born in England, where his father was a poor orchardman at a pleasure garden. His career started early, first as a thief and then as a man of botany and a sailor, which takes him across the seas, before landing back in England. 

He moves to his final destination in Philadelphia, where he sets himself up as a very rich man, a ‘newly minted sultan’. He takes up a wife, Beatrix Whittaker, who runs away with him, from Holland. The wife brings him Alma.

Alma is no ordinary girl, but where she lacks in prettiness, she more than makes up in
her intelligence and her grasp of botany. She is well brought up, with a strict hand by her mother. But she has to come to terms with an adopted sister, Prudence. She encounters Retta Snow, a charmer of a girl and George Hawkes, the first man, she falls in love with.

After her mother’s death, she comes face to face with the travails of growing up. She is forced to take care of her mother’s duties, and watches as her friend and sister get married.
As Alma’s life unfolds, her loneliness is coupled with her sexual desires, and her meeting with Ambrose Pike, a lithographer with mystical and spiritual ideas. Her marriage to him, the eventual breakdown of it, and her travels around Tahiti and Amsterdam, form the rest of this story.

What makes it fascinating is not just her family, but the conversations with the wonderful characters, the abolitionists, the astronomers, missionaries and even the sea captains.

I liked it, but then in the middle it probably becomes a bit of a drag. Alma’s tryst with botany actually lured me into the book (Almost had me want to start studying it again) along with her father’s adventures and then her own adventures at sea. Her married life and her encounters with the missionary are the bits of drag in this really long book. 

Alma is never confined by her femaleness and her big bones. She sets forth in spite of her disappointments with love, into this world with uplifting conversations and encounters with science and evolution. (You might be interested in her theories around Charles Darwin)

The book takes on the form of a voyage. Full of ups and downs. It started off wonderfully when it set sail, and then it lapsed into storms before resurfacing at the calmness of the sea.

Author:  Elizabeth Gilbert
Design: Alison Forner
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Bloomsbury
ISBN : 978-1-4088-5391-7
Price: Rs 599

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