When I began reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, the famous author of the autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love, I expected a story that would involve herbal medicine. Instead I got an nineteenth century story that included a highly profitable pharmaceutical business, a passionate botanizing heroine, desire, travels around the world, a charismatic man named Tomorrow Morning and a struggle between science and religion.
Like many gardeners I enjoy novels that include a garden, whether in a mystery, or in some less violent context. The Signature of All Things (Viking) contains many gardens, from Kew Gardens in Britain, the Euclidian garden of Beatrix Whittaker, mother of our heroine Alma, gardens of plants kept alive in the holds of sailing ships, a magical cave in Tahiti and the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam. However, these all merely form the backdrop for the struggles, life and loves of the big-boned, red haired brilliant woman and scientist-before-there-was-such-a-thing, Alma Whittaker.
As a girl Alma leads the secluded, but rigorously intellectual, life as the daughter of her very wealthy British father Henry and a practical Dutch mother in their imposing estate near Philadelphia. Hanneke de Groot is the equally practical Dutch housekeeper/nurse. The household changes when Alma is 10 and Prudence suddenly joins the family as her adopted sister. Prudence is beautiful, and Alma is not.
When they are adult Prudence marries their former tutor, a devoted abolitionist, and Retta Snow, the sisters’ best friend, marries George Hawkes, the publisher Alma worked with and secretly and ardently loved.
What is her response? Of course she weeps and grieves. But, over the years she becomes a taxonomist, naming every plant on her father’s estate. One day while cleaning out the estate library she comes across a paper she wrote about the Monotropa hypopitys moss. She realized how little she knew about this moss – or any moss. Her excitement grows as she realizes she has found her life work. “Alma realized she would never learn everything about mosses – for she could tell already that there was simply too much of the stuff in the world; they were everywhere, and they were profoundly varied. . . . She need not be idle. She need not be unhappy. Perhaps she need not even be lonely.”
And there we have the real subject of the book. Alma’s search for happiness which she finds in challenging and gratifying work. Although she begins publishing the results of her researches using only a first initial to identify herself, she is not particularly concerned by the limits women face in the world of work. On the other hand, she also feels maidenly limits so little, that she is intrepid and barely hesitates before setting out on a dangerous journey to Tahiti.
She even finds a new love, Ambrose Pike. Ambrose is a brilliant, unworldly artist who has painted the exotic orchids of the Amazon and brought them to the publisher George Hawkes. They meet and quickly Ambrose and Alma realize they are soulmates.
“You are interested in creation” said Ambrose “and all its wonderful arrangements”
As for Alma “She felt herself set loose as she spilled forth ideas from her long overbrimming vaults of private thoughts . There is only so long that a person can keep her enthusiasms locked away within her heart before she longs to share it with a fellow soul, and Alma had many decades of thoughts much overdue for sharing.”
There is no happily ever after, at least not of the kind where the not very young couple walk off into the sunset.
Elizabeth Gilbert gives us the heart, questioning mind, and bold spirit of a fascinating woman. Her life is a roller coaster of events and thoughts. The plot twists one way, and turns another as Alma goes from adventure to insight. For me, that is the joy of fiction, the thrill of getting to know the ins and outs of a complex character’s thoughts and emotions.
I have written about many books about gardens and gardeners over the years, but I have never brought a novel to Between the Rows. However, I cannot help myself because I found this book so beautifully and poetically written, and this character so thrilling. Alma’s life many be very different from ours in every respect, but we gardeners can identify with her passion for plants. We understand her excitement as she sees her favorites ever more clearly, her appreciation of their beauty and her passion for learning their secrets. We can even consider the unexpected places our passion has led us to, just as Alma’s studies lead her forward into a new world of radical thought.
I turned every page of this book with almost the same anticipation that I feel when my garden is coming to life. On spring mornings I want to race out and examine every new leaf and bud, knowing the garden will supply me with promise and endless surprise. In my reading chair I wanted to see what new surprise awaited Alma – and me. ###
Between the Rows October 5, 2013