I am not one for reading self-help books or books that purport to be biographies with a distinct psychospeak edge. With a literary landscape rich with fiction, genuine biography, history and poetry, I simply cannot find the time to indulge in the Anthony Robbins of the book world. Others may disagree with me. There is of course a plethora of books within this genre but to me, I’d rather indulge in the new Ishiguro or the old Isherwood before I attempted to ‘Unleash the Power Within’ (I presume that’s a title!).
Despite the fact that my dear friend Rebecca* purchased several copies of Eat, Pray, Love to share with our gal pal circle, my copy has collected dust year after year waiting until I feel enough time has passed that I can relocate the former tree to the recycling bin. Harsh, I know.
So when a colleague recommended Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest novel, The Signature of All Things, sceptical barely scratched the surface. I started to imagine having to write my signature daily on all my possessions as some sort of positive affirmation to lead myself towards my greatest life. Fortunately, I was completely wrong.
The Signature of All Things is a novel (yay!); even better, a novel of historical fiction (double yay!). It is told in five parts and for the majority, follows the life of Alma Whittaker, an intelligent woman with a passion for science and cerebral pursuits. She is neither ugly nor attractive and is somewhat isolated both due to her parent’s enormous wealth and by the small size of her family. While Alma’s life was interesting enough, it was part one that focused on the life of her father, Henry Whittaker that I found to be the most captivating. Henry grows up poor to hard working parents and soon finds himself travelling the barely-discovered world at the behest of infamous botanist Joseph Banks.
Henry becomes a self-made titan; an entrepreneur of the ages. What he lacks in intellect he more than ameliorates with fortitude and common sense. He is hard and cold at times, but unrelentingly passionate and driven, particularly when it comes to his daughter Alma.
I recently read that Alma Whittaker is a one of the all-time strong female protagonists in literature so I feel like a bad feminist (thanks Roxanne Gay!) when I find myself more intrigued by Henry’s story than Alma’s. I think it is because while Gilbert does indeed equip Alma with the fortitude and curiosity of a trail-blazer, she denigrates this by Alma’s incessant sexual needs that dominate the book in parts and become more tedious through the journey of the novel. It seems, that for Gilbert, Alma cannot stand alone as a strong and intelligent women. Alma has to be cut down by her sexual yearnings that are naïve, boring and add nothing to an otherwise good yarn.
This book has interesting moments and even highlights of greatness. I think it suffers from being a little too long, or perhaps a little too long exploring parts that could be better left alone (double entre intended).
* name has been changed to protect my recycling bin