This novel has no right to be such an immersive bewitching page turner. Its nearly 600 pages long, its narrative force relies on a single character, a plain almost loveless woman whose passion is, of all things, mosses and, though it’s very well written, there probably isn’t a single sentence of memorable virtuoso prose in the entire book. And yet…
Elizabeth Gilbert doesn’t possess the rarefied brilliance of Hilary Mantel as a prose stylist but The Signature of all Things shares lots of similarities with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies – one complex and beguiling character is called upon to personify an entire age, an age of upheaval. Cromwell was the sensibility of the Reformation, Alma Whitaker is the sensibility of the Enlightenment. She’s something of a fictitious female Charles Darwin. She arrives at Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest before Darwin has published his book but, based on personal experience, is plagued by the doubt that humans, under the microscope, aren’t so easily categorised into theories as plants and wildlife. Self-sacrifice, especially, is the human trait that baffles her – ironic since her unbecoming appearance has forced her to some extent into stifling many of her biological human longings.
Cleverly Gilbert writes and structures this impeccably researched novel very much in the style of a classic 19th century novel. Her ventriloquism is excellent. It’s only the mischievous (and often very funny) explicit sexual content that reminds us this is a novel of our times.
Alma Whitaker, a classic Daddy’s Girl, is a brilliant dramatization of longing and aspiration against hostile odds. Especially female longing and aspiration. Certainly one of the most memorable and appealing heroines I’ve come across of late. The Signature of all Things is quite simply storytelling at its best. It’s a shame this isn’t what Chick Lit is – a novel about the longing for completion on the part of a woman that is intelligent, brilliantly crafted, organically sound and uplifting instead of the sentimental damaging tripe that genre has come to represent. Probably the perfect book to take on holiday with you.