Alma, a woman of science

I have just read a book that has gone straight into my top ten, but explaining why is difficult. My daughter, sending it to me for my birthday, wrote; I really hope you like this book – it’s lots of fun & a bit bonkers, but a very enjoyable story and a brilliant heroine.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things has, above all things, a brilliant heroine.

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I don’t remember a story  so straightforwardly told and yet in which I was continually taken aback by the next turn of the narrative. This sense of being caught in mid-arabesque and sent in another direction persisted to the end of the last printed page – the acknowledgements. This is a long book and I wondered as I started, if I would ever get to the end. There were even moments when I thought, I’m not sure I like this book, yet I kept turning the pages. The narrative style is dry, yet moving; the subject matter is sometimes alarmingly microscopic, yet captivating; the narration is eyebrow-raisingly frank, yet always believable.

It is really a story about human curiosity, it might even be a story about growing old, or it might be a story about all the things that interest the reader most. If I had my way, which of course I won’t, everyone would read it. Almost all women would find great enjoyment here. Women who work in the sciences should search it out and consume it.

Gilbert also wrote the best-selling autobiographical, Eat Pray Love, which seems to have divided readers into lovers and haters. I can’t tell which I will be, but I have a feeling that The Signature of All Things is a very different story. In this one Gilbert has slotted total fiction into a very real and fact-filled part of western history.

Oh, and it’s a garden lover’s paradise too. It more or less starts in Kew Garden and ends in… but I’d hate to be guilty of a spoiler.

Happy Winter Solstice, Christmas, New Year or whatever you are celebrating.

Here is a happy Garrya elliptica and some surprised daffodils. I saw winter aconites out in a nearby garden!DSCN8743 - Version 2


42 thoughts on “Alma, a woman of science

  1. I din’t like “Eat, Pray, Love” that much, mainly because I thought she wasted time in these beautiful countries with …well with Eating, Praying and searching for love.
    However, I liked that book. Like you I wasn’t sure from the start, but it grew on me.

  2. It is a book that grows on one, I think. But it also took me out of myself during a tough time, and was sent to me by a dear friend, a total surprise. I was very thankful for it. And now for your photos of daffodils and other growing things at this time of year. My best wishes for the season and 2016, Hilary. I’m always so pleased to read your blog.

  3. I enjoyed EPL because I read it at a time of a huge transition in my own life so it sang like a choir for me. I’ve listened to her speak on writing and I have her book “Big Magic” on my list of books to read, so clearly I’m a fan. I love that you were ambivalent at first but it won you over.

  4. I just mentioned this book to Helvi and she told me she has read it and agrees that it is a good read. Helvi devours books before breakfast, like a starving man coming out of a Siberian gulag. Her side of the bed is now more and more in danger of a land/bookslide towering above and next to her.
    I am reading, ever so slowly, a good book by Ann Tyler ‘A spool of blue thread’.

    • Indeed. I look back and see many mild Decembers with primroses and even violets, but NEVER have I seen a daffodil before late February (I have photos of those same daffs on March 14 in 2014). Watching for the first yellow aconite globes is what gets me through the dark days of January, so yes, we are collectively surprised.

  5. No, Helvi looked up her booty of books and it was Elizabeth Gilbert’s ‘eat pray love’. She read it and thought it alright but a bit complicated and meandering hither dither. I got she felt lukewarm about that book. Sorry about the confusion. Remembering so many books isn’t easy for anyone.

  6. I’ve never read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ but recently the universe kept putting ‘Big Magic’ in front of me so I bought it and took it with me to Nepal to read. I loved it and it was passed on to friends on the trip to read also. Anyway, in it is a wonderful story of how she came to write this book. It’s just kind of funny to me that it should now pop up on your blog like that. Perhaps I should read it! 😀

  7. I couldn’t get through “Eat Pray Love” but I’ll give this one a go after reading your review. It’s great when a book makes such an impression on you. I’m reminded that one of the books I particularly enjoyed this year was your very own “Borderline”, and I would like to read it again. A very Happy Christmas and New Year to you and your family, Hilary.

  8. You are looking at daffodils and we are expecting snow, Hilary. Out little daffodils are happily hiding down in the ground all bundled up and waiting for warmer times. 🙂 Here’s wishing you and your family a great holiday. –Curt

  9. Hi Hilary,
    Loved this post. I recommended this book to Amy after she turned her noise up at Eat pray love. I knew I would convince her to love ELizabeth Gilbert with this book.
    I thought Eat pray love was exceptional I know it has some harsh critics and the writing isn’t as sophisticated as Signature but I found it profoundly changed my life. Her booked helped me through a difficult break inspiring me to take an 8 month trip round India. Her words helped me so much..
    I think Signature of all things is a totally different style, an epic and so interesting to read about women in science she researched this book for 3 years! Do you know she based Alma on many women in history but one being Marianne North. I love her botanical paintings and she was so pioneering going all over the world to paint. You can find her paintings in a building in kew gardens.
    After a signature I became even more obsessed with Elizabeth Gilbert, I listen to her podcast Magic lessons which inspires creativity and she has a great conversation with Ann Prachett another of my favourite authors.
    Anyway I better stop but I could talk about her and this book and her for ages!

  10. I’m going to look for it – thanks for the recommendation.
    (Isn’t Garrya elliptica a California native? Yet mine does not look as healthy as yours! BTW there are male and females, the latter having the prettiest “flowers.”)

    • I think this book would appeal to you. I was telling my brother about it a week ago and he said he usually enjoyed my recommendations and mentioned your book! Garrya have been popular in the UK as long as I can remember. They are often grown against a wall here as they are vulnerable to deep frosts. People mostly buy the males here, as although the females have the fruits in summer, the males have the longer showier catkins. I can’t remember what this particular variety is called.

  11. Oh I must try this one, thanks, I love Kew and did a course there on botanical illustration. Not good at it but I think it has helped my writing! My daughter gave me the Tea Planter’s Wife to read. Straightforward narrative but I thought a powerful read and got hooked. Then my husband reads it and says we met the author, before she became a best seller. She lived in the next village to us and came to tea! Perhaps it will rub off on me!

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