Tag Archives: The Signature of All Things

Six Degrees of Separation – from The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency to Prodigal Summer #6Degrees

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month we’re starting with Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, yet another book I haven’t read but I know it’s set in Botswana and that’s its author was born in Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

As was Petina Gappah, author of The Book of Memory in which a young black albino woman tells her story from the prison in which she’s detained for a brutal murder she insists she didn’t commit.

The title of which leads me to Margaret Forster’s The Memory Box about a woman whose mother died when she was a baby leaving her a box of mementos – clues as to who her mother really was. Naturally, dark secrets are revealed

Randal Keynes’ Annie’s Box is the story of Charles Darwin’s eldest daughter who died aged ten. The eponymous box contains keepsakes from Annie’s short life, shedding light on Darwin, his work and his family.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s first novel, The Signature of All Things, tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a botanist, and her relationship with Alfred Russel Wallace who published a paper on evolutionary theory with Darwin in 1858. While Whittaker was a figment of Gilbert’s imagination, Wallace was not, although his achievement has been eclipsed by Darwin’s reputation.

Gilbert wrote a book about her struggle to accept the idea of marriage despite being deeply in love with her partner. Ann Patchett wrote of a similar experience in This is the Story of a Happy Marriage which is very much more than that. It’s made up of a set of essays, an album of vivid snapshots of Patchett’s life and how she sets about her work as well how she came to finally marry.

Patchett wrote what you might call an eco-novel, State of Wonder, set largely in the Amazonian rainforest. Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer could also fall into that bracket. It follows a park ranger, a recently widowed entomologist and an old man hoping to find a way to bring an extinct American Chestnut tree back to life. Not one of her best for me – I preferred The Bean Trees and Pigs in Heaven – but worth a read.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a Zimbabwean prison to small-town Appalachia. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

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.