Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
(Viking / Blackstone Audio, 2013)
Format: audio CDs via library (narrated by Juliet Stevenson)

From Goodreads: "Spanning the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, this enthralling story follows the fortunes of the Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a fortune in the South American quinine trade. Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma, becomes a botanist of considerable gifts. As her research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, who draws her into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist, Ambrose a utopian artist, but they are united by a need to understand the workings of the world and the mechanisms behind all life." 

So I went into this with not the highest expectations, and without knowing much about it other than some positive comments from people I trusted who (like me) didn't particularly like Eat, Pray, Love

Henry Whittaker’s adventures quickly captivated me; he’s a brash and shameless egoist whose ambition is more than enough to drive him to all the fame and fortune he craves. I wish the force of his personality had been used to greater effect after his daughter Alma grew up; suddenly he becomes someone who needs managing and coddling, a transition that doesn’t really honor the Henry we watched grow from a thieving London gardener to the richest man in Philadelphia.

It does, however, work as far as turning Henry and his vast empire into an albatross around Alma’s neck. One of her several albatrosses, as it turns out, since she is also burdened, she feels, by her size and appearance, her unusually inquisitive brain, and the Dutch reserve instilled by her austere mother. Alma is a very hungry caterpillar of a child, absorbing everything around her, but she spends the majority of her narrative in her cocoon, struggling to burst forth. It makes for some really intense drama, as Alma’s longings, large and small, fail to be realized.

And then the intense, talented, odd Ambrose Pike shows up, and Alma emerges from her cocoon, but not as the magnificent butterfly she’d imagined. At least she can fly, though, and this third part of Alma’s life is less intense but ultimately more satisfying to her as a person.

(I do realize that since Alma and her father are botanists, I should have framed this whole thing in terms of a plant growing then flowering, but then I’d have to get into a whole plot-spoilery thing about pollination, and no one wants that.)

Here’s the very weird thing about this novel. I definitely enjoyed it; I wanted to be right there as Henry grew his empire and as Alma bloomed (there, I did it), and I had physical reactions to the emotions happening (achy heart, gasps, etc.) It was intense, and took place in a great world – all the plants, all the parts of the world, all the science and brainy people. But once it was over, I was gone. It didn’t stick; it didn’t plant a seed in my soul. (I will stop with that now. Probably.)

Juliet Stevenson’s reading is impressive. She conveyed Alma’s joys and shames and obtuseness and sharpness with pitch-perfect tones. It’s a long, long narration (18 CDs) and I know from other lengthy audiobooks that there’s a tendency to lag or lose the flavor of the text with long projects, but Stevenson was present for the whole thing. (This isn’t a surprise, given some of the hefty classics she’s narrated so beautifully, but it’s still a delight.) I’m cautious about listening to more literary works (instead of reading them) because I don’t want to risk losing touch with the text, but Stevenson is so reliably accessible and emotive that I blindly trust her to interpret whatever she’s reading. That trust was rewarded again here.

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