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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Paean To Self-Improvement

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 in Philadelphia to a hugely wealthy plant importer and supplier of herbal medicines, is a highly-intelligent woman who has the misfortune to be physically unattractive to men. Materially affluent but emotionally impoverished, she becomes a botanist specialising in the miniature world of mosses.


When she meets an eccentric illustrator of orchids she falls hopelessly in love and quickly accepts his proposal of marriage but their union is never consummated and they split up. He travels to Tahiti where he dies prematurely. Later, in an attempt to understand his enigmatic personality, she follows in his footsteps.


After an epiphany in Tahiti she begins to develop a theory of evolution but declines to publish her work because she finds herself unable to explain the phenomenon of altruism. Eventually she sees very similar ideas propounded by Darwin to universal acclaim.


The Signature Of All Things is an intelligent, original and provocative piece of historical fiction. Full of colour, underscored by a gentle but unsparing humour, it is an examination of our relationships to the natural world and to each other, as well a paean to self-improvement and scholarship.  


There is so much about this novel that is satisfying - the strongly-evoked characters, the confident storytelling voice, the compelling evocation of intellectual excitement, the brave and powerful depiction of female sexual longing, the unflinching examination of the assumptions and misunderstandings that underpin so many romantic relationships.


But, and this is a big but, it all goes on far too long for me. Things that could have been said once are said three times, characters who are meant to be endearing become irritatingly over-indulged.  There is an organic proliferation to the text that is no doubt entirely in keeping with the spirit of the book but it did make me wish the editor had done some judicious weeding.