Best of 2013: The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Viking, 512 pp. October 2013
What can I not say about this book? I loved everything about it, and by the time I closed it I had the distinct realization that my life had been changed powerfully. I must have noted quotable pieces from nearly every chapter. There were so many moments of this book that stood out to me simply because of their beauty. The way they were written is so staggering it’s hard not to want to remember them.
I have to admit, however, that my knowledge of Elizabeth Gilbert was limited to Eat, Pray, Love and Committed prior to this book. I knew she wrote fiction, I just hadn’t had the chance to read any of it. But I found out this book was coming out, and I knew I wanted to check it out.
The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma Whittaker, the “handsome” daughter of botanical enthusiast Henry Whittaker. Despite her strict mother, Alma is an emboldened young woman who discovers a passion for mosses and takes to studying them in a way that had not yet been done before.
The story chronicles Alma, who is a powerful character, a fantastic female in contemporary literature. But interweaved into her story is the nature she holds so dear. And here’s where Gilbert’s writing shines: the way she writes the forest Alma escapes to–the way she brings to life Alma’s love for the plants around her–is magical.
Moss grows where nothing else can grow. It grows on bricks. It grows on tree bark and roofing slate. It grows in the Arctic Circle and in the balmiest tropics; it also grows on the fur of sloths, on the backs of snails, on decaying human bones. Moss, Alma learned, is the first sign of botanic life to reappear on land that has been burned or otherwise stripped down to barrenness. Moss has the temerity to begin luring the forest back to life. It is a resurrection engine. A single clump of mosses can lie dormant and dry for forty years at a stretch, and then vault back again into life with a mere soaking of water.
There were several fabulous stories published this year that included a woman in a scientifically-focused role–a role she would not have had in the time period or culture of the story. And I could have included some of them on my “Best of 2013” list. But I chose The Signature of All Things because of the voice it added to the conversation of spirituality vs. biology. In addition to writing a strong female character and a fabulous journey of a story, Gilbert offers another perspective on the dichotomy between “heaven” and “earth”–between that which we believe and that which we have in front of us–that I hadn’t considered before. The message she proposes may not have been new to me, but her presentation was thought-provoking. And perhaps that was the point all along: even when we look at the same thing from a different angle, we see something new.