Alma Whittaker is the kind of heroine that I normally dislike. A mannish and unattractive girl born at the beginning of the nineteenth century to a wealthy family, she turns to botany to feed her intellectual appetite and undergoes a sexual awakening after reading some risqué books of her father's. When she acquires an adopted sister, Prudence, who is beautiful, polite and silent, she feels unable to identify with her, and inadequate in the face of Prudence's evident desirability, and she scorns the silly Retta Snow who attaches herself to the two sisters. All of this reads to me as an incredibly familiar narrative imposed by modern authors upon nineteenth-century women; as if it is somehow still daring to portray a nineteenth-century woman who can think for herself, who is not obsessed with frills, corsets and sewing, who might - shock horror - have a sex drive. Even worse, there's the underlying suggestion that pretty women must be empty-headed, that being a 'tomboy' is morally superior. I suspect this sort of narrative is what critics of historical fiction are often thinking of when they condemn the genre for being conservative and pedestrian, and on this point, I'd have to agree with them. However, somehow Elizabeth Gilbert takes this unpromising material and weaves out of it a story that is quite compelling and much more complex than I'd thought it might be at the beginning - and a story that I found myself increasingly warming to as the telling went on, something that is extremely rare.
I say the 'telling' because Gilbert's incredible readability, which I also appreciated in Eat, Pray, Love, stems from the sense that you are sitting down and listening to a story. Sometimes this reads like a biography, but the narrative drive is strong enough that this isn't a problem. This narrative tone is set early on in The Signature of All Things, when Gilbert spends a couple of chapters telling us the story of Alma's father, Henry Whittaker, and how he acquired his vast fortune, having been born into poverty as the son of a gardener at Kew. I usually detest these sorts of digressions in books - it isn't necessary to know the history of a character's family to understand the character - but Henry's story is captivating in itself, and does, eventually, tell us a lot about the adult Alma. Reviewers have taken pains to emphasise how different this novel is from the autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love, but I disagree. Despite the disparity in content, this novel is also fundamentally about a middle-aged woman who sets out across the world to find herself, and is surprised by what she finds. Gilbert's talent lies in pulling this tale off, and making Alma's voyage of self-discovery satisfying rather than self-indulgent, a balance that she possibly didn't quite manage in Eat, Pray, Love.
Telling the reader a story has its drawbacks as well as its positives. If you are a rabid adherent to 'show, not tell' (more about this in my next Monday Musings) you won't be a fan of this novel. To my mind, Gilbert makes full use of the advantages of 'telling', but in doing so, she simplifies the lines of her story. There is something akin to a fairy tale or a moral lesson in The Signature of All Things, which works as far as it goes, but leaves the reader with little to grapple with, no way to get deeper into the story. The depiction of Tahiti, late in the novel, for example, is idealised, and despite close attention to detail, we feel as if this is an essentially fictional version of the world, and not a narrative that is set in a real place. This isn't necessarily a problem, and it certainly adds to the novel's charm - but it prevents it from becoming a truly great book. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised by Gilbert's abilities as a novelist, and have added her first novel, Stern Men, to my to-read list. (Gilbert has, however, been ill-served by her publishers: the cover for The Signature of All Things is one of the most hideous I've seen for some time. Something better for the paperback, please?)