I was drawn to this book by the promise of a strong female character; a scientist in the 19th century making her way through life in a male and religion dominated world. I wasn’t disappointed at all.
The Signature of All Things starts with the story of Alma’s father and how he came to become a botanist. It then moves through Alma’s childhood, into adulthood and throughout her career. She falls in love with a man who challenges the scientist in her with his spiritual beliefs. Although this is a main part of the plot, this relationship doesn’t overtake the book. I wouldn’t call it a romance novel, but an exploration of a woman’s life.
The book is much easier to read than you would think considering the scientific theme running through it. The idea of reading about a botanist doesn’t seem too appealing, but the science doesn’t take over. The writing flows well and I loved the tone of the book. I also loved the touch points with historical figures and events scattered throughout the book.
It is a very long book, and others might criticise it for being too drawn out, but I can’t imagine where you would cut sections out without leaving huge emotional voids in the story. This book has been long listed for the baileys women’s prize for fiction, and I can see why.
It was so lovely talking to Elizabeth about her book and the writing process. She told us how she didn’t want the happily ever after to be a successful marriage or children. A woman doesn’t need to achieve these things to feel successful and fulfilled. It’s a lovely sweeping novel typical of the time without the stereotypical ending. The message she sends across is one of passion and drive to succeed without needing a man to enable that. I can’t stop thinking about this book!
I received this book from Mumsnet in exchange for a review.
I was also on a webchat with Elizabeth Gilbert over on Mumsnet talking about her book The Signature of All Things.
I thought you might like to see a few things she said about the book. I was really keen to talk to her about her intentions behind the book; whether she intended a feminist theme and how difficult that was to portray.
I asked if it was difficult writing about a strong female character in a time that was dominated by men and religion:
Thank you for this! I’ll tell you the truth…my first instinct with this novel was to write the story of a brilliant woman of ideas who could never make an impact on the world of science because she was a woman, and nobody would listen to her. But as I began to do research on 19th century female botanists, I discovered that many of them had been taken VERY seriously. They were published, they had plants named after them, they co-founded botanical gardens, they engaged in academic arguments with their male peers about taxonomy…in other words, they had voices and they had a certain amount of power. (Not a huge amount of power: They couldn’t be president of a university, or the head of the Royal Society of Fellows. But they were far from invisible) To be sure, all those women had money and class on their side, but they still had some power. When I learned this, it changed the whole story. I made Alma stronger, and made the men in her life respect her more. I think it made for a more honest and complicated tale.
I asked about an all time favourite and one she had read recently:
My all time favorite novel is probably GREAT EXPECTATIONS. But in general, I love 19th century fiction — particularly of the British variety. Especially Dickens, Eliot and Trollope. They are my godfathers. As for the last book I read that rocked my world, I adored THE GOLDFINCH
I was going to ask if she saw herself in any of the characters (someone beat me to it) but she replied to me anyway:
I see myself in all of them. Sometimes I think I am mostly Alma, but other times I think I am entirely Henry (the ambition! the ambition!)…but there are days when I am purely Beatrix (the firmness and discipline) and other days when I am crazier than Retta and dreamier than Ambrose. The only character I don’t identify with so much is Prudence, because her goodness is so out of reach to me. I wish I were so virtuous, but I afraid I’m not such a saint!