The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Not one unnecessary page

Cover imageThere’s been a lot of talk about long books over the past ten days: the Man Booker-winning The Luminaries weighs in at 832 pages and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, for which many of us have been waiting for a decade, stretches to 784 pages. My heart always sinks a little when a big book comes into view on the TBR shelves, partly because there are so many others coming up behind and partly because too often when I reach the end of a long book I feel that a good 100 pages could have been axed. Not so with Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things which just clips the 500-page bar. It’s big in the best sense of the word, spanning a century in which ideas about the world changed incontrovertibly – shockingly for many – and exploring those ideas through the life of the unforgettable Alma Whittaker.

It opens with clever but light-fingered Henry, son of the Apple Magus of Kew, caught stealing precious plants and handed over to the celebrated botanist Sir Joseph Banks for punishment. Banks recognises talent when he sees it and despatches Henry on Captain Cook’s third and final voyage to collect specimens, then to Peru. Henry finally fetches up in Philadelphia, sets up a thriving botanical business, marries a stalwart Dutch woman with a mind as sharp as his own and an education to match, and fathers a daughter, fiercely intelligent and passionate about botany from the age of five. Into this intellectual hothouse comes Prudence, orphaned, beautiful and circumspect – chalk to Alma’s sassy, knowing cheese. Gilbert explores many of the big ideas of the nineteenth century through these two. Prudence marries their tutor, a passionate abolitionist, and dedicates herself to the cause but it is Alma and her passion first for the wide world of botany, then for the moss which grows so abundantly at White Acre – a passion which will eventually take her to the ends of the earth – who is the central figure of the novel.

The Signature of All Things is clearly the product of a great deal of research – even its title is a reference to Boehme’s arcane botanical theories – but it’s research that’s worn lightly and never intrudes. There is a great deal of playful, sly wit reminiscent of Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World and T C Boyle at his best, particularly evident in Henry’s voyages, described in all their stomach churning glory, and Alma’s sojourns in the binding closet. Alma’s character is so well drawn that she is utterly convincing – I felt the need to Google her when I finished the book and was disappointed not to find her. But, then, that’s the point: there was surely more than one unsung Alma out there, passionate and accomplished scientists who remained obediently at home when their mothers asked them to care for their elderly fathers.

So, does your heart sink or leap at the thought of a doorstep-sized novel? Is life too short for more than 300 pages or does it depend on the author? What’s your page limit? Happy to knock off 800 pages in few days or would it take you until Christmas 2014 to finish The Luminaries? I’m interested to know what you think.

9 thoughts on “The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert: Not one unnecessary page”

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas)

    I confess that my heart sinks at doorstop books, though I think that might be changing with the e-reader. No painful thumbs, for instance. But mostly the pain is psychological! Once I start I have to finish as quickly as possible however.

    1. Given the size of The Goldfinch I think a preparatory trip to the gym might be needed just to hold it up! Perhaps the advent of the e-reader means books will get even longer.

  2. Well I actually got up half an hour earlier for a week to read The Luminaries and was about 500 pages in when it was announced the winner, because a book like that must otherwise wait for the summer as Murakami’s 1Q84 did last year and b>Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah did this year.

    My best reading buddy is finishing The Signature of All Things as we speak, and she is on a train heading for Monet’s Gardens in Giverny, so I have a week or so to wait before it lands on my bedside table. But I couldn’t help but notice that she speaking at the Southbank Centre in London tonight and there is a wonderful trailer on their website where Elizabeth Gilbert speaks about her inspiration behind the book and the main character. Wow, it really works in making you want to start reading immediately.

    You can view the trailer here. Makes me wonder if it too is destined for a film.

    1. I like your doorstep strategy! There seems to be something of a trend in expanding size – perhaps more publishers could go the 1Q84 route and publish in separate volumes. It would save those aching arms.

      Thanks for the link – I liked the way she spoke about Alma. She’s such a complex and ultimately endearing character. I think she will stay with me for some time. Hope your reading buddy enjoys the book as much as I did.

      1. As she was speaking about Alma, I suspected she was going to say that there was a link with her own obsession, what a fascinating connection back to an historic book that has been in the family for so many years.

        My reading buddy teaches and therefore reads a lot of creative non-fiction, so she tells me she is absolutely loving both being within the pages of a novel and this one is pushing all the right buttons. Sharing a great novel is half the fun! Can’t wait to read it.

        1. She blends her research into her fiction beautifully, none of that clunky ‘I’ve spent hours in the library so it’s going in’ stuff. Hope you enjoy it, Claire.

  3. This is a great review, you’ve really made me want to read it. Great cover too! My heart instinctively sinks at anything 500+ pages but, BUT it really does depend on the book – I loved A Suitable Boy at 1300+ page and IQ24 at 900 odd …

    1. Thank you and you’re absolutely right – it very much depends on the book. I think it also depends on how well it’s been edited.

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