Pity the poor author who wears the golden handcuffs of a career-defining, gazillion-selling memoir. (Or hate her; your choice.) But give Elizabeth Gilbert credit for stepping about as far outside the parameters of Eat, Pray, Love’s pasta-and-ashrams monologues as she can get in her latest, The Signature of All Things.
Signature is built on a very different — and fictional — heroine. Alma Whittaker, a 19th-century heiress–turned–natural scientist, is born with a beautiful mind but not, we’re reminded many times, a beautiful body; she is ”ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose.” In a lot of ways, this is the type of novel that used to be called a yarn: an old-fashioned tale of far-flung voyages and thwarted Victorian romance. But Alma is also born straddling the Age of Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and she has the brains and the means to explore both. (She also learns to explore her own body with an enthusiasm that wouldn’t exactly pop up in Gulliver’s Travels.)
If reading a 500-page book about a ”giant female creature” whose greatest passions are moss and an ethereal orchid-lover named Ambrose Pike sounds about as dull as watching plants dry, it’s not. Gilbert’s writing is so smart and richly drawn that it does what all the best books do: It sweeps you up. If anything, it’s almost too adventurous; you might wish, in the end, that she had put her characters through a little less calamity. It’s hard to picture Signature finding an Eat, Pray, Love-size audience; History, Botany, Virginity isn’t exactly a hot sell for Oprah’s Book Club. But a story this good deserves to be read for the woman it brings vividly to life — not the résumé of the one who wrote it. A-