"The Signature of All Things": Adventures of a lady scientist

Elizabeth Gilbert's triumphant new novel, read by master narrator of Victorian literature Juliet Stevenson

Published October 17, 2013 7:00PM (EDT)

Some of us have been waiting for Elizabeth Gilbert to get back to writing fiction for a long time now. "Stern Men," her sparkling novel about a young woman going to work among Maine lobstermen, was published in 2000, and while it's hard to begrudge the author the success that followed "Eat Pray Love," it was nevertheless vexing that the memoir centered on three activities, only one of which I had much interest in reading about.

But the wait is over, and anyone eager to dive into the audiobook version of Gilbert's new novel, "The Signature of All Things," will be even more pleased to learn that the narrator is the British actress Juliet Stevenson. Stevenson's face would be instantly familiar to Anglophiles everywhere, especially those with a penchant for British TV (her films include "Truly Madly Deeply" and "Drowning by Numbers"), but she's also a first-class narrator. Her reading of Ian McEwan's "Sweet Tooth" lent dignity to a character for whom McEwan himself seemed to feel a rather condescending fondness, and listening to all six of the Stevenson narrations of Jane Austen's novels in a row would approach this audiobook aficionado's notion of nirvana.

Stevenson is a slightly odd choice for "The Signature of All Things" because the main character is not British but American, a woman named Alma Whittaker, raised on her father's sumptuous estate just outside Philadelphia in the early 1800s. Alma is large and awkward, with a head of wiry bright red hair regarded as a "tragedy" by everyone she meets, but she's also clever and determined. Her great love is botany, inherited from her father, who built a trading empire on medicinal plants. The novel traces Alma's life story from a youth of unruly carnal desire and unrequited love, through an adult blossoming as an amateur scientist -- the only version of the profession available to her -- to a peculiar late marriage and even more remarkable period of middle-aged globetrotting that takes her as far as a beach hut in Tahiti.

By the time you've sunk into the long luxurious binge of readerly pleasure that is "The Signature of All Things" you realize why Stevenson was chosen; she is the supreme female narrator of the sort of 19th-century novels Gilbert emulates with this book. Stevenson's American accent can be a bit sketchy, but she is a master of the delicate irony and serene authority of this style of third-person narrative. As Gilbert takes her heroine through the entire scope of an extraordinary life, Stevenson conveys the sense that the hand on the wheel is firm and certain and that the reader may lean back in perfect confidence that neither journey nor destination will disappoint.

Yet for all that "The Signature of All Things" aims at reproducing the immersive experience of reading a great Victorian novel, it breaks most of the conventions that ruled the novel in its heyday. As much as Alma yearns for love, it does not become the defining principle of her life, as it is for virtually all female characters in the fiction of her time. Alma is, in fact, often sorely blinkered in her relationships, and Gilbert makes the dawning of this woman's ability to understand others serve as the engine of the novel's innermost plot. Although she does not belabor the point, Gilbert is also a wizard at conveying the beauty and wonder Alma finds in the humble area of her expertise: moss. You will never look at moss in the same way again after reading Gilbert on the subject. It was all I could do not to rush out to a florist and buy some as soon as I finished the book.

"The Signature of All Things" is not without its mystical characters, which shouldn't come as a surprise, given their creator's reputation as a seeker after transcendental truths, but Gilbert's heroine is a firm rationalist who holds fast to her capacity for awe. There are popular science writers who rhapsodize on the joy of contemplating the glories of a purely material universe, swearing this can equal the spiritual ecstasies of religion, but it takes a novelist to really put the feeling across. (A.S. Byatt is good at it as well.) Elizabeth Gilbert is a novelist again, and for that wonder, too, this reader is profoundly grateful.

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By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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