Monday, May 23, 2016

The Signature of All Things (by Elizabeth Gilbert)

My friend Chris said he was reading and enjoying this, plus I was on the lookout for a book set before 1900 for the Read Harder Challenge, so I did my patented get-a-Kindle-sample-on-my-phone-and-start-reading maneuver. I was immediately hooked, and did the patented must-keep-reading-buy-now-click, as well as the patented tear-through-this-book-in-one-weekend speed read. All patents pending.

It's a sprawling novel that tells the story of Alma, born in 1800, unpretty and brilliant, a botanist with a searing curiosity about the world, who grows up in Philadelphia in the era between the Revolution and the Civil War. It tells the (very compelling) backstory of her father's history. Then some stuff happens -- I don't want to give away where the action takes us or what happens to her, but we follow her into old age and yes, along the way, a lot of stuff happens. 

I was surprised at the quality of the writing from Elizabeth Gilbert -- since she wrote Eat, Pray, Love,  I had preconceived notions of her as more of a "women's contemporary fiction" author rather than a writer of literary fiction. But this novel is really well done, captures the time period well, and if Alma's ambitions and confidence seem a bit anachronistic at times, well, it's not competely preposterous. 

However, one thing is preposterous, and I'm mentioning it in this paragraph so RSS readers avert your eyes, and browser readers highlight to read. Kurt Vonnegut's famous saying is that every character you write should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. Alma's "glass of water" is... frankly ludicrous. If this book had been written by a man, I would have thrown it across the room. Because her life's ambition is to give someone a blowjob. I am not even kidding.

Anyway. I went back to read the discussion during the Tournament of Books 2013, where this book competed. (It got knocked out fairly early. Americanah wasn't on the shortlist. The whole thing was a travesty.)  A lot of people loved it, a lot of people hated it, even on the sentence level -- maybe it was that I read it quickly or that my expectations were low, but none of that bothered me.  Overall, I found it to be a good read and it gets a thumbs up from me!

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