The Signature of All Things: A book review

Exploring the cross-pollination of ideas — Part 2 of 3

I’m currently reading two books with botany themes — the first is a series of educational essays, while the second is a work of fiction. They have both been such absolute joys, I find myself compelled to write about them.

As an extension of the book reviews, concurrently reading two botany-themed books has got me thinking about the concept of cross-pollinating ideas. This is something I’d like to write about as well.

So that all of this is more easily digestible, I’ve split this blog post into 3 parts — 2 separate book reviews and my thoughts on cross-pollinating ideas. They are meant to be read as a whole, but feel free to read them separately and in your own time.

Elizabeth Gilbert has a horrible reputation. “You mean that trashy Eat Pray Love girl? I hated the movie.” is what most people say when her name is mentioned. This is unfortunate because she’s actually an established journalist and fiction writer. And, more relevantly, her book is absolutely lovely.

See on Amazon

The premise is a little bit daunting — set in America in the early 1800s, it follows an intelligent and rich girl whose family trade is botany.

I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to research and write a fictional book on botany, set it in the early 1800s and actually make it interesting. Somehow, Gilbert succeeds on all fronts. She deftly describes 19th century natural disasters that plagued Southeast Asia and its impact on crops and business. Then, without batting an eyelid, moves on to talk about dutch sensibility and the effect that has on raising a child. This all sounds like it would be horrifyingly dull, but it says something about the strength of Gilbert’s writing that it is not.

I was hooked from the very first paragraph of the very first page. Here it is. I hope you’ll be similarly engaged:

For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger in the world — as we all are passengers in such early youth — and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time, even within elegant Philadelphia. How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again. For it was no more common in 1800 than it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting — although not noble, as he himself would have been the first to confess.

This no-nonsense tone with the barest hint of tongue-in-cheek carries on through out. I sometimes, with amusement, get the sense that Gilbert prefers some characters to others because her narration softens or becomes brusque and sometimes even flippant, depending on whom the spotlight is focused. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed following her as she follows the Whittaker family.

Read the final part in this series. It explores how cross-pollinating ideas from this book with Gathering Moss by reading them concurrently has made both books more enjoyable. I also share further thoughts on the concept of cross-pollinating ideas.

You can also go back and read the first part of this series, a book review on Gathering Moss.

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