I stayed up late the other night finishing “The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert because I wanted to see how it all turned out. “I want to see how everything is going to turn out” is the signature phrase of my Great-Aunt Nancy, and it fits her to a tee. Her curiosity has played a strong part in keeping her alive, and sharp, into her 90’s. The main character in “The Signature of All Things,” Alma Whitaker, has that same inquisitive trait (she reminds me in many ways of my Great-Aunt Nanc) and the story of her life makes for a fantastic read. I loved this book. It is an essential read.
I learned a lot while I read “The Signature of All Things,” but I didn’t realize it until I finished because I became so lost in the narrative. Gilbert masterfully provides her readers with science and history lessons, all seen through the eyes of Alma, one of the most fully developed characters I have encountered. Curiosity and a thirst for knowledge sustains us. Gilbert’s narrative demonstrates that searching for answers, asking questions, and looking for meaning are all human traits that are absolute gifts (most of the time).
Alma Whitaker is born in 1800 into a privileged life on an estate in Pennsylvania. Her father and mother have high expectations for Alma’s behavior and attitude, so every moment of the day is filled up with opportunities for her to learn and experiment. The house she grows up in has a steady stream of esteemed visitors, who must be interesting, articulate, and intelligent to meet the intellectual demands of Alma’s father. One of my favorites scenes in the book occurs when an astronomer creates a solar system at a party held outdoors. I don’t want to spoil the scene for people who haven’t read it so I won’t describe it in detail, but at one point Alma becomes a comet. Gilbert writes:
Astonishingly, at some point, a sputtering torch was thrust into her hands. Alma did not see who gave it to her. She had never before been entrusted with fire. The torch spit sparked and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos-the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.
Nobody stopped her.
She was a comet.
She did not know that she was not flying.
Her knowledge gives her confidence, and one of the characters tells her that “The entirety of your being is reassuring, Alma.” As a woman in the 19th century her opportunities were limited, but she makes the best of her circumstances and eventually her life leads her to places and to people she would never have imagined. Alma does not have a perfect life, but it is a full, meaningful life. Really, what more can we ask for?
More than anything Alma likes to study and theorize. She devises theories of time and thinks of them in four groups: Human Time, Geological Time, Divine Time, Moss Time. Alma thinks, “The most striking characteristic of Human Time, however, is that it moved with such amazing quickness. It was a snap of the finger across the universe…She was a mere blink of existence, as was everyone else.” Her descriptions of all the Times are beautiful and thought-provoking.
My favorite line of the book, which brought tears to my eyes because I thought of my Great-Aunt Nanc, is when Gilbert writes that Alma, “…still wanted to see what happened next, as much as ever.” Because we all live in Human Time, as Alma would say, we don’t get to see what happens next. We need to make the most of the time we have.