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Elizabeth Gilbert - The Signature of All Things

"Moss grows where nothing else can grow."

This is a novel about a female scientist, Alma Whittaker, who never got recognition for her work.
Born in 1800 to a wealthy familiy in Philadelphia, immigrants from England and Holland, early in her childhood she started to be interested in botany and became a selftaught explorer of nature and a scientist. She even published some books about her findings and ideas.For over 50 years she basically never left her home. Its gardens were so huge, she found enough to explore there and ultimately specialized in mosses, which suited her well. Because moss changes so slowly, nothing ever seems to happen.
Alma Whittaker never was one to search the stagelight. She wasn't particularly beautiful and never was loved by a man. She did marry though, another botanist, specialized in orchids, a gifted artist, who painted the most beautiful pictures of orchids, and, it turned out later, also of a nude young man on Tahiti. The marriage never happened in the true sense, if you know what I mean. Because her husband wanted to be a spiritual being and married her to mainly be with her soul and her exceptional spirit, that suited his so seemingly perfect. But she could not bear it and when he did not want her sexually, she sent him away, as an employee of his fathers company, to supervise a vanilla plantation on Tahiti.

Usually it is easy for me to write about a book I read. About this one, I find it a little difficult to write. It was a long book. Truth is, it never truly captured me, like some books will, when I start reading and hardly can stop, because the story draws me to turn page after page. Well, this book captured me again and again, and this is probably, among other reasons, why I kept reading it, but again and again it lost its grip on me. Then again: is it necessary to be captured by a book? To have it turn me page after page almost desperately to find all the conclusions for all the opened boxes?
The Signature of All ThingsElizabeth Gilbert must have worked hard for this book. It is rich, a long and beautiful story really. I do love the language. To read Elizabeth Gilbert is almost easy, because her language sounds so entertaining, funny and you just swim along on its flow, though the subject is science, philosophy, questions of meaning and much much more. Since I have an M.A. in philosophy, I was drawn to this book. Its questions are my questions like: when we die, are we truly gone? Is it possible to find the meaning of life? Why can people be good without gratification?
Also the character fascinated me: this Alma Whittaker, who isn't beautiful, who never had a man, who serves her father and family for most of her life and than takes off for Tahiti, where she finds her deceased husbands' truth, who moves to Holland and becomes the curator of mosses at the Hortus Botanicus in Amsterdam, reuniting with her mothers family, who comes to Darwins conclusions almost at the same time, he did, but never publishes them, because she is not satisfied with the ideas yet, who becomes almost 90 years old and never gets recognition. She lives a humble life. And she still says: "I have been the most fortunate woman who ever lived. My heart has been broken, certainly, and most of my wishes did not come true. I have disappointed myself in my own behavior, and others have disappointed me. I have outlived nearly everyone I ever loved. ...I am fortunate because I have been able to spend my life in study of the world. As such, I have never felt insignificant. This life is a mystery, yes, and it is often a trial, but if one can find some facts within it, one should always do so - for knowledge is the most precious of all commodities."
To me, this sums her up pretty good. And I like her. But she never is one of those heroines I could truly fall for. Maybe because I am into beautiful heroines who find true love and recognition in the end? Yes, true, until the last page, I waited for this to happen. Maybe because I fall for heroines who in the end make no mistakes and turn out to be the best person in the entire book? Also true. Though she turns out to be pretty good! Actually it is hard not to admire her strength and intelligence.
This is a novel about a female scientist, yes, true, but also about patience, concentration, devotion. "All I ever wanted to know was this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history - added to the great library as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life."

But there was something else that kept me at a distance, which was the story. It is too long, too complicated for me at times. I get lost in all those different routes, Gilbert takes. It exhausts me. After reading Stoner, the example of a concentrated storyline, this Alma Whittaker makes me dizzy with all the shifts and turns.(Though I am even thinking, that Alma is a sort of soulsister somewhat of this guy Stoner, in her dignity, her humbleness, her concentration, her devotion to the one thing, that interests her in life, something about her reminded me of him and please do tell me, if you agree or disagree with me.)
One thing though I have to say: Gilbert succeeds in bringing the whole thing to a closure that did not leave me unsatisfied and for this, I have to lift my hat! She is a great writer and can work her way through 500 winding pages of tons of characters, of places, of ideas and questions and bring it all down to an end, that left me somewhat happy.
So yes, I tell you, read the damn thing and tell me, what you think about it. I gave it 4 stars on Goodread, and my critique with the winding story and my exhaustion and all this is basically what kept me from giving it a 5 and from putting it on my list of favourite books of 2014 or alltime. But else, it was a pretty good read and maybe, I am a little too strict here. I am interested to hear, what you think about it. Mail me or comment here.

© Susanne Becker


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