Wednesday, April 16, 2014
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Desire by the Schuylkill

A reflective 19th-century Philadelphia heiress is hungry to know and be known.

Author Elizabeth Gilbert conjures profound dilemmas in "The Signature of All Things."
Author Elizabeth Gilbert conjures profound dilemmas in "The Signature of All Things."
Author Elizabeth Gilbert conjures profound dilemmas in "The Signature of All Things."  Gallery: Desire by the Schuylkill

The Signature of All Things

A Novel

By Elizabeth Gilbert

Viking. 512 pp. $28.95

Reviewed by Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans


Alma Whittaker, the sometimes unlikely but immensely likable 19th-century heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert's new novel, inherited her Dutch mother's rigorous mind and her British-born father's drive and resilience.

But it is the American heiress' venture into the realms of desire (that unnerving snake in the Victorian garden) - thirst for knowledge, for friendship, for shared sexual passion - that threatens to undo her.

Alma's enthusiasm, ruefulness, and endless curiosity propels and enlivens this long (almost 500 page), exuberantly ambitious, and impressively knowledgeable work by the author of the wildly popular Eat, Pray, Love.

In Alma, Gilbert has created a protagonist whose hunger to know and to be known is the occasion of both opportunity and tragedy. "Tall and mannish, flinty and freckled, large of bone, thick of knuckle, square of hip and hard of chest, " Alma adores her father, obeys her mother, and is fed on a diet of conversations enriched by the knowledge of astronomers, doctors, actors and musicians invited to dine at her parents' table.

Henry is a botanical entrepreneur and former thief who has made a fortune dealing in dealing in cinchona, a source of quinine. Beatrix is the wife who "felt certain that she could work with him - and perhaps even manage him a bit." They have come to America to build an empire, far from the constraints of traditional European society.

For more than half of the book, Alma's world is encompassed by White Acre, a Philadelphia estate "on the muddy bank of the Schuylkill," constructed as an expression of Henry's status as the richest man in Philadelphia as well as a hub for his medicinal enterprises.

For Henry, plants are a business. Capitalizing on the wealth of America's growing commercial aristocracy, he fills his glasshouses with American cultivars and foreign imports.

But for his daughter, who has bent her formidable intellect to mapping out the contours of her confined world, the study of botany in general and of mosses in particular, is something rather different: a means, albeit in miniature, of understanding the world of nature:

"Then Alma lifted her face and saw what was before her - dozens more such boulders, more than she could count, each one similarly carpeted, each one subtly different. She felt herself growing breathless. This was the entire world."

Yet, in spite of becoming a published expert on the subject, Alma discovers that exploring and delineating the miniature universe of mosses is not sufficient occupation to quench her longing for love and erotic fulfillment.

Yet she and her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence, are burdened, not only by social isolation but also by Whittaker erudition, making them unsuitable companions for traditional swains.

Thwarted in love, Alma settles down to minding her father's estate and his business concerns, appearing likely (though not resigned to the idea) to sink into a life of scholarly spinsterhood.

But it is at that point, when the life within the confines of White Acre seem to be her fate, that Alma meets the gentle, other-worldly and deeply wounded orchid painter Ambrose Pike. A disciple of the 17-century mystic Jacob Boehme, as eager to find God's design in the world as she is to understand and classify it, he evokes both friendship and passion, with unexpected and revelatory consequences.

With the advent of Ambrose, the book takes Alma into unexpected territory involving a voyage of discovery, and self-discovery, which takes Alma to Tahiti, and eventually to Amsterdam, her mother's ancestral home.

Some of the novel's supporting characters, particularly Alma's abolitionist sister Prudence, aren't particularly well-developed. This ends up causing trouble for Gilbert later on in the novel, when motivations seem forced and plot lines creaky.

Yet readers who have come to admire and empathize with Gilbert's protagonist will trustingly follow her as she experiences adventures that test her endurance and her faith in reason.

Like the late John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman, a book that also encouraged and sometimes compelled the habit of reflection on big ideas, The Signature of All Things is an invitation to introspection as much as it is a fictional narrative.

In the person of her intrepid explorer, Gilbert embraces with gusto topics that animated and bedeviled the Victorians, from evolution to spirituality (and spiritualism), the nature of progress, the double-edged sword of innovation, and the meaning of love and sex.

In simpler terms, the novel asks whether Alma can find a way make peace with a world in which to desire is not always, or even often, to obtain.

Truth be told, these are still the questions that lurk just underneath the sweeping claims of our science-haunted age. Without spoiling the end of the book, it is fair to say that a question that troubles Alma throughout the book's final chapters is still hotly debated today.

Those who pick up this deeply engaging novel will not find easy or neat answers to the profound dilemmas Gilbert conjures, beckoning us into a world that looks so strangely similar to our own.

But, like Alma, they may find comfort, insight, and even inspiration in grappling passionately, and even lustfully, with the questions themselves.


Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a freelance writer in Glenmoore, Pa. You can reach her at

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