2stars, book review, Elizabeth Gilbert, long book, Netgalley, novel, reading, The Signature of All Things
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 2 of 5
e-book, 512 pages
Published October 1st 2013 by Viking Adult
Available on: Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle, Audio CD
The Signature of All Things is a loooooooong book to read. Therefore my review will be long too. If Elizabeth Gilbert, her editor(s), publishers etc. made me read this endless book, I deserve the right to make them read a long review.
The Signature of All Things is a work of fiction about the life of a woman named Alma Whittaker. The book had a promising beginning. I liked the prologue, it did a good job of introducing the main characters. The first part was an enjoyable read. The first chapter was good. The second chapter was great. I liked the writing and didn’t skip reading any word. Henry Whittaker’s story was interesting, intriguing and it left me wondering what South America had in store for him. A good introduction for her daughter: Alma. So far the length of the book didn’t worry me. I thought it was going to be a long but enjoyable read, emphasis on I thought.
After reading about Henry, we meet little Alma. She had such a strong personality from an early age. She was definitely “the plum of White Acre*” (*the estate where she grew up). Alma was raised as an intellectual princess. She was home schooled but that wasn’t a burden for her to receive the highest quality education her parents and their money could give her. She was surrounded by a perfect Botany learning environment that not only included America’s largest, most complete and finest botanical gardens but also she was exposed to the diverse opinions of intellectuals and scholars that her father invited as guests to dinner in their estate. I thought that making her a part of those dinners at such a young age was a great idea on her father’s part.
Alma had been welcomed at this combative table from the time she was four years old, and was often seated next to her father. She was allowed to ask questions, so long as her questions were not imbecilic.
The writing in this first part is very good. The descriptions were so vivid, I could practically see Alma’s childhood while reading. There’s a scene involving planets and a “human flying comet” that seemed magical and charming. Perfect scene for a movie. Despite the solitude of being an only child and being surrounded by adults, you can only imagine her to have a brilliant and exciting future.
But then the book takes a turn when Prudence enters the story and it all starts to gradually change for the worse. This is where it got boring and tedious to read. First I thought that Prudence was going to be a great asset for Alma’s life story. I thought our lonely little genius would finally get a sidekick with whom she could live many adventures. Sadly Prudence and Alma were like oil and water. The only thing I liked about this part was that despite their differences and the gigantic wall and rivalry between them, these girls had such a privileged education. It was admirable how their mother tailored their education to their interests and abilities. Their mother was a vital figure in their education. I’ve actually highlighted some of their mom’s lessons. She’s so right!
Then the book changes once again. Alma is grown up and boy did she grow up to be something. A young wild explorer if you will! Ha ha ha I’m no prude but Alma’s sexual awakening was not an enjoyable thing to read. I found reading the continuous rambling about Alma being unable to keep her hands off her “quim” not only unpleasant but annoying. What mostly bothered me about this was Elizabeth Gilbert’s obsession with the word “quim”? Didn’t she have a thesaurus or couldn’t she use the normal real word for it? Every time I read this word (I counted 11 times) it was just a turn off and it made me want to stop reading.
On the other hand there’s Prudence. I couldn’t bond with her even if you paid me. Her prude chaste façade was unbearable. You know from the get go that no one is that “perfect”. And after all the education she received from the Whittaker’s it was disappointing to see what she grew up to be in the end. Her life story could’ve been of someone who was rescued from a doomed future to become an important, brilliant, influential person in society but sadly she didn’t achieve any of that in my point of view.
Then we meet Rhetta a likeable character and one who is important to the story, but despite that, I felt like she got robbed and got a boring storyline, when she could’ve been more of an influence on Alma. She had the flamboyant personality to take the story to a whole different path. A sadly waste of a character.
And then Ambrose enters the picture. I found him dull, boring and weird. I couldn’t bond with him. And for the love of writing, that scene in the closet was absurd and ridiculous! I didn’t understand why Alma makes him such an important part of her life. What infuriated me the most was that she was such an intelligent woman, so much knowledge in that brain of hers, yet when it came to life she was completely ignorant, insecure and scared. I guess her stubbornness got her what she deserved. *spoiler* The woman who was reading porn-ish and sexual instructive books since childhood couldn’t notice the guy was gay? Come on!! *end spoiler*
I can’t deny, that I felt sorry for Alma when she suffers her two losses. The second one affected her more than the first. I also felt sorry that she didn’t have time to mourn the first one by having to take control of her estate and stuff. She took everything in and I hoped she would have her cathartic moment in the end, but that moment never came.
Then there’s Tahiti. Yes, Gilbert made a profound research not only on the world of botany but on the customs and society of those times. But reading about the reverend, pastor I don’t remember what he was, reading about his life in the wild was boring. Alma’s whole mission to go to Tahiti was dumb and pointless. She risked her life, gave away everything for Tahiti and a thousand chapters later (well, not a thousand but it felt like having read 1K chapters in the end) what did she achieve or get? Nothing. Not even the closure she so needed. Just more torturous truths and regrets. Oh and we read another ridiculous, absurd, unpleasant, non-arousing sexual scene in a cave that made me facepalm myself over and over. *spoiler* I mean, really? The virgin woman with supposedly the highest libido ever gets fulfilled by giving a BJ to her dead gay husband’s lover in a moss covered cave in a remote location in Tahiti? (you can breathe!) She made an almost deadly voyage on a filthy, pest infected ship to Tahiti and she got “closure” with that? The world’s supposedly most brilliant mind couldn’t get a man to have proper sex with? (facepalm, facepalm, facepalm, facepalm and yes facepalm).*end spoiler*
But wait, there’s more. Then this story changes once again and we keep following Alma until her 80’s. What bothered me about this last part, and this will be a spoiler was that Alma, one of the world’s most brilliant minds, in her late years didn’t achieve scientific grandness. She supposedly discovered Darwin’s theory of evolution before him, yet she does nothing and doesn’t even share her knowledge with the world. So much knowledge wasted and thrown to oblivion. She publishes work on dull spongy mosses and even one of the most complete orchid picture book, yet she isn’t interested in scientific glory with her evolution theories? Come on! What kind of scientist makes a discovery and is not eager to share it with the world?
Gilbert made me read 512 pages about Alma, aside from her brain she was such a devoted daughter, I hoped she would get to be a good mother and a successful scholar but in the end she’s nothing. I disagree with the book’s synopsis when they say Alma inherited her father’s mind. Her father was a man who knew what he wanted from a young age, and made whatever had to be done to achieve his life goals and he made it. She didn’t seem like her father’s daughter or her mother’s daughter. Not a single trait of them in her personality. No money or knowledge in the world could make her have a fulfilled life or take away the fact that she would always feel like an 80 year old frustrated virgin. And then she hugs a tree. *eye roll* A ceaseless book and that’s how it ends?
I have to add that despite the fact that Gilbert researched a lot for this book, I don’t agree on what she wrote about Guatemalan’s not having a religion, and I quote:
Do they honor the Sabbath in Guatemala, Mr. Pike?”
“Only through the acts of drinking, brawling, and cockfighting, I’m afraid.”
Anyone who researches about Guatemala knows that the country was not a jungle in the 1800s, it gained its independence from Spain on September 15th 1821. Guatemala had huge bonds with Roman Catholicism, as the Spanish missionaries built monasteries, churches and schools to convert the population to Catholicism. Everyone knows that one of the principles of catholic religion is to honor the day of the Lord. So to state that they didn’t “honor the Sabbath” is not accurate and only denotes the lack of knowledge on Catholicism or the lack of respect for Catholicism.
I might add, that the minority of the Mayan descendants who weren’t “catholicized” yet, had their own complex religion with a varied assortment of Gods to worship. Yes the Mayan religion included drinking, but it was a serious thing, a part or traditional solemn rituals of their beliefs, not some sort of careless hobby where people had fun “brawling” or “cockfighting”. And with a little research you can easily find photographs of Guatemala of that time, and clearly see that people were not running naked in the wilds. Guatemala was not an uncivilized virgin jungle as Gilbert tries to make the country look like.
I don’t know her sources but I disagree on this information she presents as a fact. It exasperates me when people just throw in random references to third world countries just to make a book sound exotic and present these countries as irrelevant places lacking any history or places whose influence on the world is supposedly so trivial that no one would notice if the facts presented are accurate or not. Well Elizabeth Gilbert, I do notice, especially when it comes to reading wrong information about third world countries.
I’m no botanist, my knowledge on that subject goes as far as my Biology 101 college class, but the scientific stuff in the book sounds correct. I leave the judging of that for the scientists and moss connoisseurs of our times. Although I must say that The Signature of All Things theory presented sounded like it was created by someone who was high on mosses! Ha ha ha
Now that I’ve talked about the bad, let me talk about the good. The mossy cover of the ARC I got was lovely. I don’t know why they changed it to a dark one or the kindle one that shows a woman going to the jungle. Despite how I feel for the contents of the book, that botanical cover was pretty nice. It fit the book perfectly.
Keeping with the good things of the book, like I said before, the life lessons from Alma’s parents were nice to keep in mind, too bad Alma didn’t assimilate them and put them into action. Another positive thing was that reading about Alma’s field of work made me feel glad of how far the world of science has come and glad that scientists have modern studying methods these days.
Also those little facts about the plants and their medicinal properties where nice to learn, for example:
In fact, the Tahitians say that all the useful plants on this island resemble parts of the human body, as a message from the gods, you see. This is why coconut oil, which is helpful for headaches, comes from the coconut, which looks like a head. Mape chestnuts are said to be good for kidney ailments, for they resemble kidneys themselves, or so I am told. The bright red sap of the fei plant is meant to be useful for blood ailments.
Basil, with its liver- shaped leaves, is the obvious ministration for ailments of the liver.
Walnuts, shaped like brains, are helpful for headaches.
And not that I’m planning to go on an expedition to wild undiscovered lands, if there are still any, but those lessons on what to do on such expeditions where nice to learn. Check them out on the quote section of my review.
I didn’t choose to read The Signature of All Things because of Eat, Pray, Love. (As a matter of fact, I haven’t finished reading EPL. I started reading the book, finished the Italy part and then the movie came out. I watched it and found it so ironic that she went on a trip to the most remote places to supposedly get rid of everything that bonded her to her ex-husband, to find herself and be happy, when all she needed was another husband. *eyeroll* Then I moved and the book got lost and I haven’t made an effort to try to find it.)
Anyway, I chose to read this book for all the buzz, which was only that, marketing buzz. The Signature of All Things is a never ending book about Alma Whitaker, a character whose life is as lethargic and boring as the mosses she is a master of. This book had potential to be a great story of all times, if Alma would’ve achieved something in her life. Maybe Gilbert should’ve just focused on Henry Whittaker’s life, that part was interesting and entertaining.
I don’t understand this tendency of authors these day to want to publish eternal long books. It takes mastery in the craft of writing to be able to write a long interesting book. This one felt like Gilbert had an idea for a book and she decided to over stuff it with tedious long chunks of apparently buzz worthy themes: botany, slavery, masturbation, homosexuality, evolution, to stretch the book just for the sake of publishing a 500 + tome. The book needs some serious editing to make it interesting. A lot can be cut off. This one is a clear example for authors that a book doesn’t have to be tediously long to be a masterpiece.
I gave this book 2 stars although now that I’m writing the review I feel like I was too generous at the time I finished reading it. But I’ll let it keep the 2 stars because I learned a lot of new words and despite the sea of boredom the book made me drown into, I managed to underline quite a few interesting quotes.
I don’t know who I could recommend this book to. Botanists, especially Bryologists might find it “exciting”. I’m just glad I managed to finish reading it and like Alma, will throw it into my mind’s oblivion.
To be prosperous and happy in life, Henry, it is simple. Pick one woman, pick it well, and surrender.
If you have sentiments within you that are unpleasant or uncharitable, let them fall stillborn to the ground. Become the master of yourself, Alma Whittaker.
Beatrix instructed Prudence that she must never say “back and forth,” when “backwards and forwards” was so much more refined. The word fancy in any context sounded crude, as did the word folks. When one wrote a letter at White Acre, it went in the post, not the mail. A person did not fall sick; a person fell ill. One would not be leaving for church soon; one would be leaving for church directly. One was not partly there; one was nearly there. One did not stove along; one hurried along. And one did not talk in this family; one conversed.
Shyness, as I have told you many times, is simply another species of vanity. Banish it.
You should not have let that man stare at you for quite so long as you did. Engrossment of this sort is demeaning to all. You must learn how to abort this sort of behavior in men by speaking to them with intelligence and firmness about serious topics.
As a woman, of course, you will always have a heightened moral awareness over men, but if you do not sharpen your wits in defense of yourself, your morality will serve you little good.
Nothing is so essential as dignity, girls. Time will reveal who has it, and who has it not.
From birth to death, Beatrix had always taught that one must exude credibility, forbearance, and restraint.
His only request had been this: once the coffin was in the hole, he’d asked that they cover the lid with straw. He wanted to make sure that, when the first shovelfuls of dirt hit his wife’s casket, the awful sound would be muffled.
Never put away your labors while the sun is high, Alma, with the hopes of finding more hours to work tomorrow— for you shall never have any more extra time tomorrow than you had today, and once you have fallen behindhand in your responsibilities, you will never catch up.
That is what her mother said: “Stop your weeping and carry on.”Animals die, it was explained. Some animals, like sheep and cows, are born for no other purpose except to die. One could not mourn every death.
The more money one has,” Henry explained to Alma, “the better people’s manners become. It is a notable fact.
Same lesson from Alma’s mom and dad:
But, Mother—” Alma began. “Do not explain yourself, daughter. It is weak.
Henry cut her off. “Never explain yourself, Alma. It makes you appear weak.
Lessons on coping with suffering and heartbreak:
What are we to do, then, with our suffering?” Alma asked. This was not a question Alma would ever have posed to a minister, or a philosopher, or a poet, but she was curious— desperate, even— to hear an answer from Hanneke de Groot. “Well, child, you may do whatever you like with your suffering,” Hanneke said mildly. “It belongs to you. But I shall tell you what I do with mine. I grasp it by the small hairs, I cast it to the ground, and I grind it under the heel of my boot. I suggest you learn to do the same.
Blow the dust off yourself!” Hanneke went on. “Your mother will haunt me from her grave if I allow you to continue simpering around this place, sucking on the rump- end of sorrow, as you have been doing now for months. Your bones are not broken, so stand up on your own two shanks. Do you wish us to mourn for you forever? Has somebody stuck a twig in your eye? No, they have not— so stop moping about, then! Stop sleeping like a dog on that couch in the carriage house. Take care of your duties. Take care of your father— can you not see he is sick and elderly and soon to die? And leave me alone. I am too old a woman for this foolishness, and so are you. At this point in your life, after everything you have been taught, it would be a pity if you could not better control yourself. Go back to your room, Alma— to your proper room, in this house. You will take your breakfast tomorrow morning at the table with the rest of us, just as ever, and furthermore, I expect to see you properly dressed for the day when you sit down to eat it. You will eat every bite of it, too, and you will thank the cook. You are a Whittaker, child. Recover yourself. This is enough.
Lessons on medicinal plants:
Basil, with its liver- shaped leaves, is the obvious ministration for ailments of the liver. The celandine herb, which produces a yellow sap, can be used to treat the yellow discoloration brought on by jaundice. Walnuts, shaped like brains, are helpful for headaches. Coltsfoot, which grows near cold streams, can cure the coughs and chills brought on by immersion in ice water. Polygonum, with its spattering of blood- red markings on the leaves, cures bleeding wounds of the flesh. And so on, ad infinitum.
Love can be foolish!
Well, we all fall prey to nonsense at times, child, and sometimes we are fool enough to even love it.
Survival lessons for expeditions to the wild 😉 :
Be certain to write your diaries and maps legibly; if you die, your notes may be of use to a future explorer. In an emergency, you can always write in blood. If you need to find water, follow a dog. If you are starving, eat insects before you waste your energy on hunting. Anything that a bird can eat, you can eat. Your biggest dangers are not snakes, lions, or cannibals; your biggest dangers are blistered feet, carelessness, and fatigue.
Alma knew to wear light colors in the tropics in order to stay cool. She knew that soapsuds worked into fabric and dried overnight would waterproof clothing perfectly. She knew to wear flannel next to the skin.
The signature of all things,” Alma murmured. Plantain branches, like these ones here, Sister Whittaker, are also said to be symbolic of the human body. Because of that shape, plantains are used as gestures of peace— as gestures of humanity, you might say. You throw one on the ground at the feet of your enemy, to show your surrender or your willingness to consider compromise.
- derided: verb. To talk or write about (someone or something) in a very critical or insulting way : to say that (someone or something) is ridiculous or has no value.
- licentious: adjective. Sexually immoral or offensive
- zealous: adjective. Feeling or showing strong and energetic support for a person, cause, etc. : filled with zeal.
- miscreants: noun. Criminal or vicious behavior.
- goaded: noun. Someone or something that urges or forces someone to do something.
- unfettered: adjective. Not controlled or restricted.
- bilker: adjective. An untrustworthy tricky individual.
- aloof: adjective. Not involved with or friendly toward other people.
- rennet: noun. the lining membrane of a stomach or one of its compartments (as the fourth of a ruminant) used for curdling milk; also : a preparation of the stomach of animals used for this purpose.
- squalor: noun. Very bad and dirty conditions.
- quim: noun. Victorian-era word that was used specifically to refer to the fluids produced by the vagina, specifically during orgasm. In modern usage it is primarily heard in British slang and is a derogatory or vulgar term for the vagina itself. The word is rarely used today in English slang but used in Wales as an insult rather than the above meaning.
- inveigle: verb. To persuade (someone) to do something in a clever or deceptive way.
- gallimaufry: noun. A heterogeneous mixture.
- clouted: noun. A hit especially with the hand.
- demurred: verb. To disagree politely with another person’s statement or suggestion.
- stalwart (used 6 times in the book): adjective. A very loyal and dedicated person.
- bedlamite: noun. A madman, lunatic.
- gall: verb. To make (someone) feel annoyed or angry.
- berth: noun. A place to sleep on a ship, train, etc..
- obdurate: adjective. Refusing to do what other people want : not willing to change your opinion or the way you do something.
- lackadaisical: adjective. Feeling or showing a lack of interest or enthusiasm
- comely: adjective. Pleasing in appearance : pretty or attractive.
- riproarious: COULDN’T FIND THE DEFINITION.
- beleaguered: verb. to cause constant or repeated trouble for (a person, business, etc.).
- cuckolded: verb. To cheat, to be unfaithful to one’s husband.
Words have multiple meanings, what you read are those that apply at how the word is used in this book.All definitions taken from the Merriam Webster Online Dictionary.
I just finished listening to the audiobook… The part when Retta came into the picture was when I stopped and thought… “Is there a point to this book or is it just a bunch of random, uninteresting points in this chicks life?” … But since I liked the first few chapters, I continued on… And eventually finished it. Without a doubt it was the most pointless book I’ve come across… I immediately googled reviews and was so thankful to find yours… Every single point you made is 100% how I feel also! Thank you for your honest review!
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You’re welcome. Thanks for your comment. It’s refreshing to see I’m not alone with my thoughts about this one.
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i enjoyed committed and eat/pray/love, but i haven’t heard any review that makes me want to pick up the signature of all things… seems like most readers feel a bit like you do. with these highlights and your thoroughness, i kinda feel like i already got the gist of it anyway 🙂
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I’m glad I could save you the trouble. Thank you for reading my review. 🙂
Wow! I really appreciate this thorough review (especially the glossary), but I think your opening paragraph pretty much said it all. Definitely going to skip. Also, your spoiler totally cracked me up!
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Thank you for reading my review. Glad I could make you laugh! 🙂