You know how sometimes you come across a book and you almost pick it up, but then decide that it isn’t your thing, so you put it back down with purpose…only to find yourself repeating the same process again and again? That was me and Signature of All Things. I couldn’t make up my mind whether or not I was going to commit myself to reading it – and keep in mind that all that meant was that I’d add it to my 300+ list of to-be-read books and keep an eye out for it in the rather organic fashion with which I approach most of my TBR list.
The blurb didn’t capture me. And probably more significantly, I had identified so strongly with Eat, Pray, Love after reading it mid-divorce that I was afraid of marring the experience. I didn’t dare watch the EPL movie; I didn’t read her follow-up memoir Committed; I didn’t think her fiction would be any less problematic, despite dozens of claims that it wasn’t anything like EPL.
But then it went and landed on a couple of “Best of…” lists for 2013. I thought about it a little harder. It was featured on Amazon’s Lightning Deals during Black Friday or Cyber Monday or some such, and so I maybe bought it for $6. And then it landed on the longlist for 2014 Tournament of Books. So I committed.
Everyone who said it was completely different from EPL? They were spot-on. Yes, I knew it was a historical fic when I went in to it, but there’s a way to do that without losing any of the whimsey I so much enjoyed in Gilbert’s essays. But I’m not averse to a more (ahem) academic voice. So I toiled on. The voice wasn’t uninteresting…it just wasn’t what I knew Gilbert was capable of. But maybe she was setting us up. Laying the land. With dull and neutral colors.
And it wasn’t as if the story and its inhabitants were completely without any glimmer or whimsey – I adored Beatrix’s blessing for her baby as she welcomed Alma into the world. I loved the fire and cleverness Gilbert showed of Henry as he was exploring and adventuring around the world as a child. I loved the curiosity and spunk Alma had a young child and the way Beatrix was determined to foster those qualities in her daughter and stuff her with learning and a thirst for more. The scene when the teens bond over mischievous remarks at dinner just after Alma’s…er…awakening. My problem was more that these scenes were just glimmers. We had moments…and then they disappeared. The unevenness left me feeling unattached and wondering whether Gilbert remembered what she had written from one scene to the next or why she was making these characters say or do what they had done.
The plot was lovely and (mostly) well-constructed; clearly it was where Signature excelled. The sweeping big moments were well written and the symbology was lovely and the metaphors not to heavy-handed. Gilbert hit some sweet notes. It was the connecting pieces that made me scratch my head at the reviews and praise I had read.
Maybe it was that I had read the book in one go – E.R.-bound at that. Maybe I haven’t thought and pondered over the book enough. Perhaps I am just missing the point entirely. Or maybe it’s that I’m also reading Adichie’s Americanah right now and compared to its genius and absolute perfection, everything else looks like a first draft thrown up on a chalkboard. Signature was better than that…but for me, not much. (2 of 5 stars)