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All things dull and beautiful
on 9 March 2015
I don't ever remember reading a book that enthralled me so much, whilst at the same time being so rambling and limp. The Signature of All Things on one level isn't my thing at all. Set in the 19th Century, it's a story about one woman and her peculiar take on the world. It's about society and a woman's place being constricted by the social mores of the time. On another level the book is exactly my sort of thing; history of science blended with questions about the existence of God. I suppose that's why I had two such conflicting reactions to the book.
Alma Whittaker is the only child of a rich American landowner, the irascible Henry Whittaker and his wife, Beatrix. Both have brilliant minds. Beatrix is of Dutch puritan descent, and has a rigorous logical approach to life and learning. She raises her daughter in her own image. Alma grows up isolated, with little companionship her own age, pressed into learning almost every waking moment. Her dinner table conversations are scientific discourse and logical rigour. Alma is highly intelligent and focussed, yet completely unprepared for anything remotely resembling real life.
I very much enjoyed the opening of the book, which begins before the birth of Alma, charting the rise of her father. Born to a master orchardman, 'The Apple Magus', Henry Whittaker grew up sleeping on a mud floor. Being gifted horticultural expertise from his father, Henry is able to make himself useful around Kew gardens, where his father works. Henry is also able to make a small fortune, illegally selling samples and cuttings from the garden. Samples jealously guarded by Kew's curator Sir Joseph Banks. Discovery leaves Henry with very few choices, and so it is he finds himself on board ship with Captain Cook, where he becomes the expedition's horticultural expert.
Henry Whittaker is the first of several strong characters in the book. The opening half of the novel that deals with his life as explorer, landowner and family man of sorts, are excellent. Most of his life we see through the eyes of Alma, who is another fine creation. Gilbert captures her with a beautiful blend of strength and fragility. She is a woman out of time. She has so much more than many of her contemporaries yet lacks the things she desperately desires.
In the second half of the book, Alma starts to move out from the shadow of her father, and explore where her own life faltered. I found the third quarter of the book very hard going. Boring even. There seemed to be much navel gazing and repetition; much of the plot and themes seemed derivative, unlike the first half. I continued on, but had this not been a book group choice, I may have abandoned it, so fed up I became with treading water.
I've since discussed the novel with my book group, and I was pretty much the only person to have such issues with this segment, although it was generally agreed it is the weakest. There is some strong evocative writing, but it didn't really seem to have much justification. Having completed the book, I have a strong feeling that, had I skipped the third quarter, I wouldn't have missed much and the book would still largely have made sense. It's probably no coincidence that the middle of the novel contains its spiritual heart. As one might expect from the author of Eat, Pray, Love (which I haven't read), The Signature of All Things has a strong spiritual element. It's with these elements I had the most difficulty.
The novel is drawn between three points. Science, the strict religious outlook of the time and an amorphous all encompassing idea of a spiritual connection. Boil this triangle down to a singularity, I suppose you would find yourself left with faith. Faith in God, faith in science or the faith that things work out according to some cosmic order. The problem for me is buying into that cosmic order. Whilst reading the novel, it didn't work for me; it felt like a silly device to keep things ticking over. I found it difficult to maintain interest in a novel so deeply immersed in the fanciful. After finishing, I realised that perhaps the spiritual side amounted to little more than wishful thinking on the part of its players. They weren't listening to some great cosmic spirit, but instead acting on their secret, unexpressed, internal wishes. This interpretation makes the whole novel more palatable, but I only made it after completing the book. When reading I didn't care for these sections at all.
So having been bitterly disappointed, feeling let down after such a promising beginning, I was pleasantly surprised by the culmination of the book. If the Signature of All Things is a 'quest' novel, it is a quest for self. Now late on in years, looking back, Alma can evaluate her life, and decide whether it is a success. She spent years studying the mosses on her estate. A slow painstaking process, that mirrors Alma's own evolution. Her comprehensive study of an ecosystem in miniature leads her to some challenging (for the time) conclusions about the origins of species, and the book returns to its scientific roots. Here the novel dovetails well with the scientific period it is written.
On finishing the book, I was left satisfied. There was much in I enjoyed. The science and scientists of the time are brilliantly brought to life. Gilbert writes fully about her chosen subject, but does so whilst keeping it interesting. The novel's strong and interesting characters make it a worthwhile read. There were elements I didn't like, but overall, I am glad I persevered to the end. The Signature of All Things was a good choice for a book group, with lots of facets worthy of discussion. Imperfect books often to give rise to the best conversations.