Who knew Elizabeth Gilbert had it in her? I’ve read and loved all of her nonfiction (e.g. Big Magic), but my experience of her fiction was a different matter: Stern Men is simply atrocious. I’m so glad I took a chance on this 2013 novel anyway. Many friends had lauded it, and for good reason. It’s a warm, playful doorstopper of a book, telling the long and eventful story of Alma Whittaker, a fictional nineteenth-century botanist whose staid life in her father’s Philadelphia home unexpectedly opens outward through marriage, an adventure in Tahiti, and a brush with the theories of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.
The novel’s voice feels utterly natural, and though Gilbert must have done huge amounts of research about everything from bryophytes to Tahitian customs, nowhere does the level of historical detail feel overwhelming. There are truly terrific characters, including mystical orchid illustrator Ambrose Pike, perky missionary Reverend Welles, and a charismatic Polynesian leader named Tomorrow Morning.
We see multiple sides of Alma herself, like her enthusiasm for mosses and her sexual yearning. For a short time in her girlhood she’s part of a charming female trio with her adopted sister Prudence and their flighty friend Retta. I loved how Gilbert pins down these three very different characters through pithy (and sometimes appropriately botanical) descriptions: “Prudence’s nose was a little blossom; Alma’s was a growing yam,” while Retta is “a perfect little basin of foolishness and distraction.”
Gilbert also captures the delight of scientific discovery and the fecundity of nature in a couple of lush passages that are worth quoting in full:
(Looking at mosses on boulders) Alma put the magnifying lens to her eye and looked again. Now the miniature forest below her gaze sprang into majestic detail. She felt her breath catch. This was a stupefying kingdom. This was the Amazon jungle as seen from the back of a harpy eagle. She rode her eye above the surprising landscape, following its paths in every direction. Here were rich, abundant valleys filled with tiny trees of braided mermaid hair and minuscule, tangled vines. Here were barely visible tributaries running through that jungle, and here was a miniature ocean in a depression in the center of the boulder where all the water pooled.
The cave was not merely mossy; it throbbed with moss. It was not merely green; it was frantically green. It was so bright in its verdure that the color nearly spoke, as though—smashing through the world of sight—it wanted to migrate into the world of sound. The moss was a thick, living pelt, transforming every rock surface into a mythical, sleeping beast.
Best of all, the novel kept surprising me. Every chapter and part took a new direction I never would have predicted. Like The Goldfinch, this is a big, rich novel I can imagine rereading.
One of my favorite parts of reviewing (e.g. for Kirkus and BookBrowse) is choosing “readalikes” that pick up on the themes or tone of the book in question. I’ve picked four for The Signature of All Things:
Lab Girl, Hope Jahren: An enthusiastic, wide-ranging memoir of being a woman in science. There’s even some moss! This was a really interesting one for me to be reading at the same time as the Gilbert novel. (See Naomi’s review at Consumed by Ink.)
Euphoria, Lily King: Based on Margaret Mead’s anthropological research among the tribes of Papua New Guinea in the 1930s, this also has a wonderfully plucky female protagonist.
The Paper Garden, Molly Peacock: This biography of Mary Delany, an eighteenth-century botanical illustrator, examines the options for women’s lives at that time and celebrates the way Delany beat the odds by seeking a career of her own in her seventies.
The Seed Collectors, Scarlett Thomas: A quirky novel full of plants and sex.