Nina's Reading Blog

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Posts Tagged ‘natural selection – fiction’

The Signature of All Things

Posted by nliakos on January 29, 2019

by Elizabeth Gilbert

This is the first of Elizabeth Gilbert’s novels that I have read, although I read and enjoyed both Eat, Pray, Love and CommittedThe story of Alma Whittaker consumed me for days; I loved it.  The story takes us from Alma’s birth in 1800s Philadelphia to self-made tycoon Henry Whittaker and his dour, no-nonsense Dutch wife, Beatrix (with a long detour to describe Henry’s childhood in England, his travels with Captain Cook, and his rise to wealth in the New World).

Alma is not a pretty girl, but she is exceptionally intelligent and blessed with a wonderful memory and a gift for taxonomy. She receives an excellent education and is encouraged to pursue her interest in botany. As she grows older, she becomes an indispensable part of the family business (botanicals, pharmaceuticals, etc.), but she is not lucky in love. She falls in love first with her friend and publisher, George Hawkes, but he marries her silly friend Retta. Then she falls in love again with botanical painter Ambrose Pike, who comes to stay and work at White Acre, the Whittakers’ sumptuous estate in Philadelphia. It seems as though Ambrose returns Alma’s affection, but not in the way she had hoped. With Ambrose banished to Tahiti, Alma struggles with grief and depression at White Acre, as her parents grow older and die, leaving everything to her. But her entire life is called into question by a family servant, Hanneke, who forces Alma to realize the sacrifices that were made for her by others. Alma decides to leave White Acre behind and to strike out on her own for Tahiti, leaving the estate and the business interests to her sister, to try to find the explanation for Ambrose’s behavior.

Tahiti is completely life-changing for Alma, who had never traveled farther than Trenton in her entire life. She learns there to let go of things and to relate to people in entirely new ways. She is about to give up her quest for answers when the person who can tell her what she needs to know suddenly appears before her. She then travels to Amsterdam, to her mother’s people. On the long voyage home, accompanied only by a mangy Tahitian stray dog, Alma begins to write down her theory of competitive alteration, but she is not entirely satisfied with it and is therefore reluctant to publish it. It is several years later that she hears about, and then reads, Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. She realizes that she has lost her opportunity to publish her groundbreaking theory because she hesitated for so long. She feels a special kinship with Alfred Russel Wallace, who likewise came up independently with the idea that natural selection, as Darwin called it, is responsible for species differentiation.

Alma Whittaker is a memorable character, a woman of great intelligence, integrity, and passion, with the courage to confront her life, with its privileges and challenges, head on. By the end of the novel, I both admired and loved Alma. Other characters–Alma’s parents, her sister Prudence, Ambrose Pike, the Reverend Welles and his adopted son Tomorrow Morning, Alma’s uncle Dees van Devender, and others, come alive as one reads. In addition, reading this book is like reading a history of science in the 19th century. Fabulous.

My favorite chapter is the seventh, which describes how 16-year-old Alma discovers how to pleasure herself from a book in the White Acre library. The first time she locks herself in a closet to experiment is the day George Hawkes, the botanical publisher, and the insufferable Professor Peck are dinner guests. During the dinner, Alma finds it impossible to concentrate on the conversation, and Prudence joins it for the very first time, arguing coolly with the opinionated professor on the subject of racism. It is wonderfully funny.

A few favorite quotes:

On learning of Ambrose Pike’s death: The news hit Alma with all the force of an ax head striking granite: it clanged in her ears, shuddered her bones, and struck sparks before her eyes. It knocked a wedge of something out of her–a wedge of something terribly important–and that wedge was sent spinning into the air, never to be found again. If she had not been sitting, she would have fallen down. As it was, she collapsed forward onto her father’s desk, pressed her face against the Reverend F. P. Welles’s most kind and thoughtful letter, and wept like to pull down every cloud from the vaults of heaven.

On nearly drowning while in Tahiti: Then–in the seconds that remained before it would have been too late to reverse course at all–Alma suddenly knew something. She knew it with every scrap of her being, and it was not a negotiable bit of information: she knew that she, the daughter of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker, had not been put on this earth to drown in five feet of water. She also knew this: if she had to kill somebody in order to save her own life,she would do so unhesitatingly. Lastly, she knew one other thing, and this was the most important realization of all: she knew that the world was plainly divided into those who fought an unrelenting battle to live, and those who surrendered and died. This was a simple fact. This fact was not merely true about the lives of human beings; it was also true of every living entity on the planet, from the largest creation down to the humblest. It was even true of mosses. This fact was the very mechanism of nature–the driving force behind all existence, behind all transmutation, behind all variation–and it was the explanation Alma had been seeking forever.

On composing her theory of competitive alteration: To tell this story–the story of species transmutation, as demonstrable through the gradual metastasis of mosses–Alma did not need notes, or access to the old library at White Acre, or her herbarium. She needed none of this, for a vast comprehension of moss taxonomy already existed within her head, filling every corner of her cranium with well-remembered facts and details. She also had at her fingertips (or, rather, at her mind’s fingertips) all the ideas that had already been written over the last century on the subject of species metamorphosis and geological evolution. Her mind was like a terrific repository of endless shelves, stacked with untold thousands of books and boxes, organized into infinite, alphabetized particulars. She did not need a library. She was a library.

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