Not-young-anymore lady goes on a quest to find herself–yes this happens in this book too. But it happens really really late in the game, and Gilbert almost manages to keep all the exoticism of Tahiti completely off the page. It is hard not to read this book as the second book of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert, and that must kill her, but hey YOU HAVE ALL THE MONEY, LADY.
I think I don’t like this book. I loved parts of it. There are some moments between the leading lady Alma and her crazy friend, man friend, and sister that were incredibly vivid portraits of love done by people who are terrible at loving. The no touching sex scene was awesome. I liked when her cray cray friend sat around asking stupid questions while Alma “does” botany in her little rich lady den. I also like when Hanneke de Groot gives Alma some #realtalk. The character of Alma herself is also impressively flawed and still likeable. But I have to be totally honest, I spent eighty percent of this book thinking “is she going to have sex now?”
I think there are two issues here. Like my other recent read the Goldfinch, there is an obvious attempt to write a serious book by a woman who is not taken seriously by the literary world. But Gilbert seems to think that serious literature has incredibly lengthy treatises on the nature of Tahitian missions, the diseases of sailors, and abolition, and whatever plant it is that makes quinine. She is good at writing these, but it made me appreciate that Franzen publishes a book of essays on his pet interests (birds, the brain etc.) instead of inserting his vanity research projects into his books.
But the first problem is also a product of the second, namely that the book is meant to mimic a nineteenth century novel in topic and style. Long treatises on boring topics is oh so very George Eliot of Gilbert. This aspect of the book made me think about the interesting role of historical fiction and what I want it to do. In some ways my perfect historical fiction gives me everything I love about Eliot or Austen but inserts more “real” stuff that they could not talk about (sex, sex, sex). Or it self-consciously dwells on the aesthetic beauty of the era and flatters the present by pointing to their backwardness while giving us hints of the progress to come: Mad Men. The Signature of All Things has hints of both these modes, but to an impressive extent it sticks to the constraints of an actual nineteenth century novel. These seems to me to be a literary exercise rather than a full creative concept that uses the experience of the present in order to reveal more about both now and then.