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News18 » Books
3-min read

The Signature of All Things is an unlikely book

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert isn't too proud allow space for the magic of everyday living.

Amrita Tripathi | IBNLive Specialsamritat

Updated:October 21, 2013, 11:49 AM IST
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The Signature of All Things is an unlikely book
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert isn't too proud allow space for the magic of everyday living.

This is such an unlikely book, and the heroine is such an unlikely heroine, that I'm not sure what to make of it. We all know Elizabeth Gilbert thanks in no small part to the Julia Roberts movie Eat, Pray, Love, and the eponymous book it was based on. We undoubtedly all have opinions on that front. (Though my disclaimer is: for the most part, I enjoyed the book, even the movie!)

Be that as it may, this novel is so far on the other end of the spectrum, that it begets a whole spectrum.

It's not just that it's beautifully written and at times whimsical, it's also that it goes about its business with such wisdom, such understated force, that you're swept up in the narrative and get taken for quite the ride. Before reading this book, let me add -- much as I like plants, and consider ducks my friends (I blame my childhood) -- I would never have thought I'd enjoy reading or thinking or even observing mosses. Right? But somehow the fascination the author and her main characters have with botany, and specifically mosses, translates and leaps off the page.

The book is about mosses and plants and growth and evolution, and science... as well as about humanity, and character and feelings and lack of them. Which is to say, it carries its own universe with it, and invites you in.

I enjoyed seeing the world through the protagonist Alma Whittaker's eyes. Though it is admittedly a bit of a stretch to imagine her life, at a time when we're all so connected. The book is set at the turn of the 19th century and takes you from the Netherlands, to Philadelphia, from the US to Tahiti, back to Europe. We see poverty and pride up close, loneliness and frustration too, as well as a deep love for knowledge for science. The Whittakers' home is a temple to knowledge in a way, and nothing is prized more than intellect and good conversation. Sadly, other things get a short shrift... Like humanity.

We get to hear about abolition, slavery, missionaries, Tahiti, the famous Dutch reserve... We go on a few voyages across the seas - feeling seasick with the best of them, we appreciate the enormity of Alma's library (courtesy her father and then her own prodigious talents), we appreciate exactly what money can buy (and the advice to "always keep a bribe" comes in handy, surely for modern day life), and we never lose sight of the purity and intensity and state of grace that the quest for knowledge leaves us in. Also touching, is a couple of sudden flashes of generosity.

This book is a triumph not just because it's so beautifully written (and how unlikely that you could interest readers randomly in orchids and mosses and plants and other botany-related things - shows what you can and can't take for granted!)... But precisely because it leaves you with your spirit ready to launch. To go on your own quest. It restores the nobility of that quest, from the banality it is in danger of sinking to, thanks to a thousand clicks a day. And Alma is a pioneer too.

If you want a line connecting this to Eat Pray Love, maybe it's that both seek to make sense of the world, and this one, even while on a scientific path, isn't too proud allow space for the magic of everyday living.

Agree? Disagree? Tweet us @amritat @ibnlive

Hardcover; 512 pages; Published October 1st 2013 by Viking Adult (first published January 1st 2013); Title: The Signature of All Things

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