By Rachel Kunjummen Paulose
Asian American Press
“The Signature of All Things,” is novelist Elizabeth Gilbert’s fictional story of a nineteenth century globetrotting American heiress and botanist, Alma Whittaker.
Gilbert became a cultural phenomenon with the 2006 release of her wildly popular personal memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” which remained on The New York Times best seller list for an astonishing 200 weeks. “Eat, Pray, Love,” prominently featured Gilbert’s travels to Asia, including India and Indonesia, as journeys central to Gilbert’s personal and professional recovery from a devastating divorce.
Gilbert returns to Asia, and other continents as well, in her latest book. Alma is the only biological child of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, European immigrants to Philadelphia. Henry Whittaker employs determination and ingenuity to raise himself up from poverty to great wealth. The strong willed Whittakers raise an equally willful child while cultivating Alma’s exceptional intellectual gifts and natural curiosity.
Educated by private tutors at a time when America’s great institutions did not admit women for study, Alma becomes a largely self-taught scientist with an expertise in mosses. Slow growing, complex, and able to survive in a variety of conditions, the mosses reflect Alma’s own qualities. Ultimately, Alma’s careful research allows her to write and publish, to some success. Ironically, Alma’s lack of confidence causes her to keep hidden her most substantial findings, which parallel Darwin’s studies of natural selection.
Alma’s insecurity extends to her private life as well, as she seeks out poor substitutes for romantic love. When Alma marries in her late forties, she chooses disastrously. Her young husband, Ambrose Pike, is a shadow of a man, discontent and displaced in the world in which he finds himself. After realizing Ambrose has no desire to consummate their marriage, Alma banishes Ambrose to the family’s vanilla plantation in Tahiti. Ambrose dies young.
Haunted by her unrequited love, Alma travels to Tahiti, where she uncovers Ambrose’s secrets. The truth sets Alma free to finally chart her own course, unburdened by her disappointing husband and her domineering parents.
Immersing herself in a new independent life as a scholar in her mother’s native Holland, Alma begins to perceive a Creator’s signature in all things. Simultaneously, she discerns how organisms evolve in response to their environments. Alma also recognizes how she has willed herself to adapt to her own changing circumstances. However, she never dares to take the risks Darwin took in exposing his ideas to the judgment of an often harsh world. At the end of her long life, Alma contemplates how her life might have been different had she not feared failure.
Ironically, Alma’s timid choices are the diametric opposite of the empowering choices Gilbert made as an author. Alma’s struggle to reconcile the burden which success may impart reflect in part Gilbert’s own public musings. In a February 2009 speech equally winsome and insightful, Gilbert described her greatest challenge as her early triumphs, in particular the phenomenal reaction to her autobiography.
At the time, Gilbert acknowledged, “It’s exceedingly likely that anything I write from this point forward is going to be judged by the world as the work that came after the freakish success of my last book, right? It’s exceedingly likely that my greatest success is behind me.”
Gilbert dealt with the fear of future failure by doing what she urged her audience to do. She simply did her job. She continued to write. She waited for inspiration, but if it did not come, she did the best she could with what she had. Gilbert said she ultimately found comfort in her conviction that her talents were simply on loan from a Creator who at times chose to radiate genius through her.
Gilbert’s willingness to share her vulnerability inspire admiration for her courage and understanding for her dilemma. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine any fictional Gilbert character who could capture the charm, wit, and intelligence of Gilbert herself. The unadorned, real life Elizabeth Gilbert is in fact the character she gave the world in “Eat, Pray, Love.”
In the struggle for existence, the strong survive. The dread of disappointment is no reason for one to cease her craft, a career ending option Gilbert once considered. While her latest book does not evoke the same magic as her breakout bestseller, the book does display Gilbert’s talents as a storyteller. And it reminds the world, sometimes, it is an act of valor simply to carry on.