THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGSThe Author of Eat, Pray, Love Returns with a Rich New Novelby Sheila CoonertyIn the midst of a reunion of our Irish immigrant family, I found myself wanting to find a corner to read. The brutal, compelling story of Henry Whittaker, the patriarch in Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things, was calling me. A young poor boy in England whose family lives and works as servants on the famous Kew Gardens estate, Henry is caught selling stolen cuttings of rare plants, but saved from a death sentence if he agrees to travel to the Far East in secrecy on a rough merchant ship in search of botanical miracles. The brutality of that trip and yet the sharpness of his mind in surviving haunted me, although I could not imagine how he could survive with heart left in him.I reluctantly closed my book as we rounded a sharp turn and entered my great-uncle Jim’s ranch, the hard-won spread central to our family for so long. While the house had been demolished long ago, the oak trees that shaded it still flourish today. We stood for a moment and stared, as if seeing the house emerge whole from among them, its hot, sweet-smelling kitchen full of the arguments and laughter of adults, kids everywhere climbing the surrounding hills and trees or scaring each other to death in the black unlit corridors beyond the kitchen. We all looked at each other and stories spilled out of our mouths, memories fresh as the morning. What a wonderful life we had!Henry’s life on the edge is more brutal but at its heart is perhaps not unlike the lives of those in my own family and the families of the many immigrants who made our country. My nana left Ireland at 15 in order to survive and my grandpa was close behind, neither ever able to return to their native land. All of those from their town came first to Philadelphia, until many flung themselves again into the unknown, landing at the ranch and the oil fields of Lompoc, where they worked more than 70 hours a week uncomplaining, all the while filling their lives and their children’s lives with laughter, love of learning, and the richness of family. While the physical difficulty of their lives may not be what we would wish for our own children, the curiosity, joy, and resilience that we gained from them is. In comparison, our society’s current obsession with test scores, planned activities, and acquiring awards seems silly and empty of meaning.I turned back that night to the Whittaker story, hoping to find out how Henry’s journey was carried into the next generation when he settled in America. I was not disappointed. The central character of this saga is Henry’s daughter Alma, who grew up in our country’s early days, involved in her father’s successful business of medicinal herbs and rare plants while making the study of botany her own passion. Though Alma’s intellectual curiosity is enormous, she struggles in her personal life, afraid she will never be loved. When she finally finds love, the results are nearly unbearable, eventually causing Alma, too, to fling herself out into the world, where she discovers that perhaps she, alone but with her mind and curiosity, can be enough.The meandering story is filled with more rich characters than I can describe here, and I would not want to spoil this story for you. Gilbert recreates the language and carefulness of thought of that century, and you will come to the end feeling that you have taken a trip back into a time when the world was slow and intricate, and when science began to explore the place of humans in this universe.But Alma’s story remains unusual even today. She has intellectual strength in a time when women’s minds were unacknowledged, and makes a huge scientific discovery while studying the small, overlooked mosses that no one else was interested in. She hesitates to publish her findings, not quite believing in her own abilities. When Charles Darwin publishes his revolutionary work, similar to hers, she must come to terms with what her doubts have done to hinder her as well as see the limits that being a woman in this world imposed on her. I found myself wondering how many women had exactly this experience, women whose names we have never heard.Alma, in the end, realizes that her pursuit of truth, with her resilience and perseverance, has allowed her to glimpse the vision of a coming scientific enlightenment. She does not need to claim the female necessities of romance, children, or good looks to have found her place in the world. Much like all of those immigrants who, restless to grow their own minds and futures, came to and made our country, it becomes more than enough for Alma that she follow her passion, that she understand as much as possible of the deep signature of meaning to be found in all things.
Sheila Coonerty, Ph.D., is a psychologist in private practice in Santa Cruz. She retired after 14 years as a psychologist for Santa Cruz City Schools and is now a trustee on the Santa Cruz City Schools Board.