I’ve never read Eat Pray Love, never seen the film, and didn’t know what to expect from this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert not having read any reviews. I don’t know why, but I half expected not to like it. Very unfair of me, and completely wrong.
First it’s a historical novel, not what I anticipated at all, starting with 18th century luckster, thief and botanist Henry Whittaker and later moving onto his daughter Alma. Born near Kew Gardens in London, son of a poor horticulturalist, Henry lifts himself out of poverty thanks to Jesuit’s bark, the newly-discovered treatment for malaria. He makes one fortune at home in Kew, stealing plants from Kew Gardens and selling them to wealthy protectors, he makes another fortune in the Far East by commercially cultivating Jesuit’s bark, and makes a third fortune in America where he imports medicinal plants from around the world, then raises native American plants and exports them abroad, so the holds of his ships never sail empty.
The opening paragraph of the book tells us of the birth of Henry’s daughter Alma, and then she is not mentioned again until part two. Alma is born to Henry and his Dutch wife Beatrix when they are settled into Philadelphia, he becomes the richest man in town and the third richest in the western hemisphere. The Dutch connection is important, but how important is not discovered until much later in the book. The Whittakers do not have much time for society and society doesn’t much like them, finding their manners a little coarse and their pedigree poor.
Alma grows up, encouraged to question everything, note everything down, and at an early age she will not let go of a question until she has an answer. “She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance. She demanded to know why a pony was not a baby horse. She demanded to know why sparks were born when she drew her hand across her sheets on a hot summer’s night.” Henry encourages this precociousness, Beatrix schools her in Dutch pragmatism.
Plants are the background to the story of this family, plants are their life, their business, and fill their appreciation every day. As a nine-year old, Alma learns one summer to tell the time by the opening and closing of the flowers. At 7am the dandelions bloom, at 3pm they fold. She must be home with her hands washed when the globeflower closes and the evening primrose begins to open.
Alma is the heart and soul of this novel, a pragmatic and at times challenging woman. Despite this, I quickly warmed to her and her life’s investigation of mosses. Moss, and Alma’s inability to stop asking questions, leads her around the globe in a story that entranced me. I didn’t know where it would lead next.
‘The Signature of all Things’ by Elizabeth Gilbert [UK: Bloomsbury] Buy now
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