Elizabeth Gilbert started out as a journalist. Then she became a novelist. Then in 2006 she wrote a memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,” that achieved some critical acclaim but undisputable commercial success — the book has reportedly generated at least $135 million in sales and birthed a $350 million franchise, one that includes a moderately successful Julia Roberts feature film, pillowcases, lip gloss, and other merchandise.
Now with “The Signature of All Things” — her new novel and her first in 13 years — Gilbert turns her gaze outward. This epic tale spans two generations and two centuries and largely centers on a woman named Alma Whittaker, tracking her from birth to dotage. Its premise is sweeping and ambitious; Gilbert writes so wonderfully that it’s impossible not to swoon; you suspect for a time that you may be in the presence of greatness.
But by the end, the novel becomes so aggressively smug that reading it ceases to be a pleasure. It becomes a sort of exquisite torture, like having a long conversation with a beautiful, articulate person who seems capable of only discussing banalities.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS
Born in 1800, Alma is a commensurate Victorian: intellectually curious, spectacularly industrious, and sexually repressed. Most notably, however, she is very smart and very, very rich.
Alma grows up on a sprawling Philadelphia estate. Her Dutch mother gives her rigorous training in science and languages. Her British father accords her a degree of respect not usually bestowed on women of the age — and he also gives her a pony. Alma develops an early and profound interest in botany, which her parents encourage and she pursues with passion and glee. It would seem Alma has it all.
Not exactly: Alma is physically unattractive and intellectually ahead of her time, so she finds herself unable to pursue the scientific career she desires or get a suitable husband. Instead, she must fulfill her intellectual aims, spiritual pursuits, and sexual desires outside conventional societal paths — things she is able to do because of her privilege. On the road to self-actualization, she travels to foreign lands, lusts after inappropriate men, and develops a personal metaphysics. Does she find herself? You bet she does.
At this point the plot likely will trigger a sense of déjà vu among readers of “Eat, Pray, Love.” Those readers also will notice the way both books embrace personal enrichment as life’s greatest aim. Her other achievements — unmentionable here because of their spoiler potential — do help and please other people. But in the book’s schema, these benefits are incidental, mere mile markers on our heroine’s journey to contentment.
The book’s other characters serve a similar function. Our protagonist’s wealth and intelligence set her apart from most of the people she encounters, all of whom seem to exist solely to dispense wisdom, provide object lessons, validate her scientific achievements, or lead her toward greater personal growth. Scientists, oppressed islanders, slaves, abolitionists — each flit through the novel in order to add texture and nuance to Alma’s journey to wholeness, like flakes of sea salt in hand-churned, artisanal caramel gelato.
The setting, too, at times feels contrived, even though evidence of Gilbert’s considerable research abounds. The book is rife with Victorian detail and dialogue and archaic scientific and philosophical thought; each chapter begins with a botanical sketch, and the title, which also happens to be from a quote from “Ulysses,” refers to a 17th-century work by German theologian Jakob Boehme explaining how items in the natural world bear a mystical imprimatur.
Alma’s singular drive for personal epiphany feels absolutely contemporary and out of place in her world. Not content to have conquered the current era, it seems, Gilbert has traveled back in time to impose a narrative of personal success on another century.
In 2013, is there anything interesting left to say about finding your bliss? Certainly. But for many women — in fact, for most women on the planet — pursuing Gilbert’s brand of vision quest takes a back seat to other, more pressing concerns.
Of course, there have been countless good books by and about women who faced no obvious impediments to happiness. Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters,” for instance, concerns a middle-aged translator, Sophie Bentwood, who does her best to avoid the lower orders or anyone outside her cloistered, New York intellectual circle. Nothing much happens, save for her dawning realization that her life cannot be as well-ordered as she likes.
In Gilbert’s hands, “Desperate Characters” would become “How Sophie Got Her Groove Back.” Poor Sophie would leave her grouchy husband and set off for a tropical clime, where she would shake herself up, take in the view, have some hot sex with an exotic local, and find God through translation. You go, girl!
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