Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Signature of All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

This very long novel, about 500 pages, tells the life story of Alma Whittaker. Her father, a self-made millionaire, of humble origin, made his fortune in pharmaceuticals. Her parents only had the one child, Alma. Alma inherited her parents' intelligence and her father's looks. She grew up to be very tall and very plain. And the sole heir to her father's vast fortune.
When Alma was about ten, her parents adopted a girl of about the same age as Alma. Polly's mother was a loose woman and was murdered by Polly's father, who finally tired of his wife's wandering ways. Her parents worked on the Whittaker estate and young Polly was a child of extraordinary grace and beauty. In order to protect the girl, Alma's mother decided  to adopt her and changed her name to Prudence.
Alma never warmed to Prudence because she felt so ugly and graceless compared to her. And Prudence never warmed to Alma because Alma was so much beyond her in intelligence and learning.
Prudence became an ardent abolitionist (the novel is set in the middle 1800s in the USA) and gets married and leaves home. Alma never marries, despite being a fortune hunter's dream, and stays home studying plants, especially mosses. In the course of time her mother passes on and more and more of Alma's time is taken up with overseeing her father's business matters.
The Whittaker estate features several greenhouses containing many rare plants, including orchids. Alma learns of a talented artist whose paintings of orchids are exquisite. She meets the man, Ambrose Pike, and is captivated by him. She burns for him and craves his love. It seemed that he returned that love and they are soon married. But Pike is not interested in consummating the marriage. He wants a platonic relationship. (Too bad he didn't make that clear before he married her.) Alma is furious and sends him packing. She ships him off to Tahiti to oversee a vanilla plantation. He doesn't last long there and dies about three years later.
Alma eventually inherits everything and comes to understand, in the course of time, that Prudence, seemingly so indifferent to Alma, actually cared deeply. So Alma gives the estate to Prudence and most of the fortune that goes with it. She then boards a ship to set off for Tahiti, desiring to unravel the mystery of the man to whom she was so briefly married.

This was an OK story but very long. Alma is kind of a jerk, a bit too self-involved and really not a very sympathetic character. I didn't care for the brief husband either, who comes across as a weirdo. Also the big secret of his life turns out to be no surprise at all.
 All these characters are so reticent, none of them can be open about anything they are feeling or thinking. Kind of like  characters in a soap opera where, if someone would just speak up, a lot of misery and misunderstandings could be avoided.

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