This was the fourth of the long novels I somehow found myself reading at the behest of one reading group or another during the late spring and early summer, and I thought I'd tackle my 'review' of the book in a slightly different way than I usually do. My regular book group decided to make this a two part read, and so, though I finished it several weeks ago now, it is still up for me in some way. As I await the upcoming late August meeting, I find myself somewhat reluctant to attend and talk about it further. So this post will be some sort of exploration of why that may be.
I never read Eat, Pray, Love, which launched Gilbert onto the bestseller list. During my years with the bookstore, I suffered from what I like to call the bookseller's disease, which is a kind of aversion to books that soar to mass popularity. Part of it has to do with the fact that those books don't need any further help from me and that other books could benefit from my endorsements. But I also had a sense that grew over time that books with such mass appeal were popular for other reasons than purely the quality of their writing. In the case of Eat, Pray, Love, I had a feeling that it spoke to a particular readership--'women of a certain age', as they say, and that as inspirational as it might be to that apparently very large group, it was probably fairly standard in its prose.
So I was surprised on opening The Signature of All Things to find that I was in the hands of an excellent writer, one whose sentences took surprising twists and turns. It was only after starting the book that I realized that before there was Eat, Pray, Love, there was a short story collection called Pilgrims, which was a finalist for the Pen/Hemingway award, and a novel, Stern Men, which became a New York Times Notable Book. In other words, despite two or three non-fiction works recently, Gilbert's initial aspirations were more literary than journalistic.
I am not going to reveal too much about the plot here, or any more than I can help to discuss my impressions, but the story begins with Henry Whittaker, a poor English boy who no one is much looking out for. Henry is the type to pull himself up by his own bootstraps if ever there was one. His adventures and misadventures take him to sea, and through shrewdness and other things not so admirable, he manages to amass a fortune and move to America, where he and his rather formidable Dutch wife have one daughter. The rest of the novel is about the life of this daughter, Alma.
Now, many readers will fall in love with Alma, who, though curiously constrained in many ways, especially for the heiress of a vast fortune, proves to be a pretty formidable person herself. For me, though, the book loses a fair amount of steam when it stops chronicling the rascal Henry Whittaker and turns him into just a mean old irascible patriarch. The opening chapters of The Signature of All Things approach Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall in energy, because they follow a similar dynamic figure. For me, it was a little hard to take a lot of interest in the fairly passive Alma after such a dynamic scoundrel, especially as it seemed to be more the author's decision to render her so rather than something that grows naturally out of her character. Alma has her innings, but they don't come early.
There was another peculiar quality of the book for me. Periodically through the course of Alma's life other characters are introduced, and with the exception of one or two, all quite vivacious. Gilbert actually writes very compelling dialogue, but instead of using this gift to give Alma companions, she seems to go out of her way to stifle these relationships in their infancy. I don't want to give away plot points, but it's a bit as though in Little Women, which is set in an America close in time to Alma's own, Jo had had to go and live with Aunt March and never really gotten to know her sisters, or Laurie had made a brief appearance, only to be sent to boarding school. The remainder of the book would be about how Jo managed to occupy herself in the brief intervals of time when Aunt March didn't need her. She might have found a botanical avocation similar to Alma's. But even Jo March couldn't make grass growing that exciting.
Now don't get me wrong. I looked at a few of the copious reviews of this book on Good Reads, and most of them are not in agreement with me. My criticism is not of craft but of plotting decisions, and that's a very subjective kind of judgement. But when I had reached the halfway mark, I was struck by how oppressed I felt by a curious joyless quality. Things actually livened up a bit shortly after that, fortunately. Though as it's Alma we're talking about, not for long.
The title is taken from a book we learn about after this halfway mark. It is Jacob Boehme's The Signature of All Things that's being referred to here--Boehme being a mystic who believed that God is constantly leaving us clues in nature. This is not very much down Alma's alley, for better or worse. She's a sort of early Darwinian. I mention the title partly because the other day I happened to come across a rather famous passage from Ulysses, where Stephen Daedalus is walking along the strand and thinking: