Elizabeth Gilbert is very talented. Her memoir was obviously what she became famous for – millions of people around the world tore through Eat, Pray, Love and adored her tales of travel and her quest for meaning and her discovery of love.
It must be hard to follow up a book like that. And fans of Eat, Pray, Love may have been disappointed over the last few years if they were looking in her subsequent books for something similar. But REAL readers will find nothing in her latest book to disappoint. In fact, if they’re anything like me, they’ll enjoy it even more.
The Signature of All Things is not a page turner in the traditional sense. I’m a fast reader and if I don’t enjoy a writer’s style, I’ll skip over some bits and just suck the meat out of the bones – racing to the end to see how the story concludes. But it wasn’t so with this book. I read it s…l….o…w…l….y, soaking up the prose and revelling in the tale of Alma Whittaker, a female botanist living during the time of Charles Darwin.
This is a HUGE book in scope and Alma leads a fascinating, rich life. And although I found her life story completely engrossing I won’t go into it here – mostly because it was not my main takeaway from this book. Instead, it was some of the sentiments Elizabeth expresses that struck me and which stay with me still. I read them over and over because I could apply them to my own experiences and she had put so eloquently many of life’s truths. I’ll share some of them here:
“All transformation appears to be motivated by desperation and emergency.” This is an observation Alma makes after years of botanical study and it obviously holds true for human beings too. In desperate hard times we can transform, mostly for the better. I feel I underwent my own transformation after losing my mum and emerged as a tougher, wiser version of who I used to be.
“Well child, you may do what you want with your suffering,” Hanneke said mildly. “It belongs to you. But I shall tell you what I do with mine. I grasp it by the small hairs, I cast it to the ground, and I grind it under the heel of my boot. I suggest you do the same”. Isn’t that a beautiful description? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could all do that with our suffering? I admire anyone who can. In terms of any suffering I’ve had, I wallowed in it for a while and then packed it quietly away, like a coat you’ve outgrown. It will always be with me, but not often visible to anyone else.
“Moreover, as Alma well knew, it was not always the most beautiful, brilliant, original or graceful who survived the struggle for existance, sometimes it was the most ruthless, or the most lucky, or maybe just the most stubborn.” For some reason this made me think of school and how the overachievers when we were younger have not necessarily flourished as they’ve grown up.
You often hear how successful musicians, artists or multimillionaires got chucked out of school for bad behaviour or because they failed academically, but then they defy all expectations and achieve greatness or success. Often the most beautiful people or the cleverest people I’ve known are the most unhappy – they burn bright before fading quickly away.
“Well, you are not alone in this world, Miss Whittaker, even if you have outlived everyone. I believe that we are surrounded by a host of unseen friends and loved ones, now passed away, who exert an influence upon our lives, and who never abandon us”. This I loved most of all. It echoes something I wrote in this article for Woman & Home after losing my Mom, “that although people die, they never really leave us. They exist in the people they loved”. I’ve always felt that.
Read The Signature of All Things – it’s entertainment, education and a little bit of enlightenment, all rolled into one. And you can’t ask much more from a book than that.