x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Flora, fauna and friendships

Elizabeth Gilbert’s meticulously researched novel is as much a handbook of plant genealogy as it is a portrait of the human condition, as seen through Alma Whittaker, the 19th-century protagonist

If you think The Signature of All Things is another Eat Pray Love-style adventure, you’re wrong.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel is as meticulously drawn as her 19th-century protagonist, Alma Whittaker, the intellectual, emotionally distant offspring of a thuggish, self-taught botanist from London and an austere, scientific-minded Dutch woman who sail to America to build an exotic plant business empire.

The story begins with the titan, Henry Whittaker, then sweeps across his lifetime and his daughter’s, recounting their lives against a lush backdrop of flora of every imaginable kind, vivid imagery that contrasts sharply with Alma’s dry, barren existence and inability to establish meaningful relationships.

Seamlessly woven into this tale are strands of divinity and Darwinism, travel to distant shores, and a colourful account of history as it unfolds.

Gilbert spent no less than three years on research, surfacing with a book that is as academic in its description of plant genealogy as it is profound in its telling of the human condition. Also, by the end, you’ll never be able to look at moss in the same way again.