- Another irrational prejudice: Don’t people who smile without showing their teeth look smug?
Is it wrong to admit I took some joy in the vitriolic comments section that followed Steve Almond’s profile of Elizabeth Gilbert in the New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago? Because I did. Like the bitter commenters, I, too, find Elizabeth Gilbert simultaneously incredibly annoying and also impossible to ignore.
It was because of Eat, Pray, Love, her chatty memoir about her trip around the world that brought her back from the brink of despair following a nasty divorce. There was basic envy that she got to spend a year eating, praying, and loving and getting paid for it. There was the constant humblebragging: the guru who told her she had more good luck than anybody he’d ever known; the “confession” that she can make friends with anybody, even a Serbian war criminal who subsequently invited her on a mountain holiday with his family (the friendship was in service of a magazine story); the line in her famous GQ story about the Coyote Ugly Saloon about how she wasn’t the prettiest bartender at the Lower East Side dive bar, but that the whole point of the place was that the male customers would fall in love with their female bartenders. (See? See what she did there?)
There was also this: For most of her career pre-Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote to impress men. She wrote for the men’s magazines. Her stories, and also her first novel, were about women trying to make their way in world of men. Two of her first three books had the world “men” or “man” in the title, for God’s sake. (Stern Men and The Last American Man.) She wrote about her adventures in dangerous places. She modeled herself on Hemingway.
And then, she writes at the beginning of Eat, Pray, Love, she has lost her house and most of her money in the aforementioned nasty divorce. So she writes this book proposal for her first piece of sustained writing intended for women. Who, as it happens, constitute the majority of America’s book buyers. Was this a calculated business decision? Or was it more of Gilbert’s good luck? Anyway, this girly book, as she admits in the New York Times Magazine profile, while it earns her gazillions of dollars, completely destroys her literary reputation, because it is not a Serious Book, that is, a book that is admired and respected in man-world. This is a memoir, one that does not concern war or politics or even contain any serious conflict. It’s about eating pasta and doing yoga and finding romance with a charming Brazilian businessman, and how this combination of indulgence and introspection made her a happier, more whole person. The voice is bubbly and girly, and it doesn’t talk to the reader like an equal. Instead, it’s the voice of an astonishingly successful woman pretending she is Just Like You, except that she has had to befriend Serbian war criminals to make her life easier instead of, say, the super in her apartment building. It’s a voice of a person who knows she is better than you are, but is trying really hard not to let it show because that might hurt your feelings.
I can’t help but find this insulting. I don’t like being condescended to.
Which brings me to a difficult dilemma in the form of Gilbert’s new novel, The Signature of All Things. I still can’t stand Elizabeth Gilbert as a person (or, rather, a personality), but The Signature of All Things is a really, really good book.
How can this be? I would submit that it’s because The Signature of All Things is not about Elizabeth Gilbert. Or, rather, Gilbert thoroughly buries her own persona in the service of telling her story. There are some familiar elements here—a woman working in a field dominated by men, a trip to the South Pacific—but there is no question that Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert. To create a character who is not an echo of yourself, what E.M. Forster calls a “round character” who appears to think and act independently, not just in service to the plot, is extremely difficult to do.
It’s also extremely difficult to inhabit another world as completely as Gilbert does, without turning her characters into oil paintings. Alma lives and breathes, although most of the novel’s action takes place between 1800 and the 1870s (with a short dip back into her father Henry’s youth in the late 1700s), in the rarefied world of botany when natural philosophers were beginning to give way to scientists. While Eat, Pray, Love‘s subtitle was One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia, The Signature of All Things is, in part, about Alma’s search for a theory of everything. (The title refers to a theory held by a medieval natural philosopher “that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth.”)
Unlike Elizabeth Gilbert (at least the sense of her we get from both her memoirs and the Times profile), Alma, despite her considerable advantages—she is both clever and rich, though not handsome—does not always get what she wants. She does not boast about what she has. She can be difficult and not always likable. Also unlike Gilbert, she is not desperate to be liked. She is smarter than most people she meets, she has sharp opinions, and she does not always express them felicitously. Men respect her, but they don’t fall in love with her. She would not be hired as a bartender at the Coyote Ugly Saloon.
All this would be worth nothing, of course, if Gilbert couldn’t write. But she can. Extremely well. Goddamn it. Here is the fourth paragraph of the prologue, which describes the reactions of Alma’s parents and their closest associates to her birth:
Holding her robust infant, Beatrix [her mother] murmured a prayer in her native Dutch. She prayed her daughter would grow up to be healthy and sensible and intelligent, and would never form associations with overly powdered girls, or laugh at vulgar stories, or sit at gaming tables with careless men, or read French novels, or behave in a manner suited only to a savage Indian, or in any way whatsoever become the worst sort of discredit to a good family; namely, that she not grow up to be een onnozelaar, a simpleton. Thus concluded her blessing—or what constitutes a blessing from so austere a woman as Beatrix Whittaker.
This passage tells you everything you need to know about Beatrix. The details are perfectly chosen. They reflect both the time (January 1800) and Beatrix’s personality and values. And it’s entertaining besides. Gilbert keeps this up for 500 pages.
It’s difficult to believe The Signature of All Things was written by the same person who wrote Eat, Pray, Love. If only Gilbert had pulled a J.K. Rowling and published under a pseudonym! The book would have been a hard sell, of course—who wants to read a book by an unknown author about a 19th-century female botanist, for God’s sake? (And, oh yes, Gilbert knows her botany.)
This isn’t a book that was written to impress an audience of powerful manly men who could really help a girl out with her literary career. It wasn’t written to appeal to women seeking enlightenment. (Alma does find enlightenment and contentment, but of a variety that’s particular only to her.) It probably wasn’t even written to be a commercial success, though it probably will be since it has Gilbert’s name attached to it and the words Eat, Pray, Love on the cover. It was written to tell the story of Alma Whittaker. Its pleasures far outweigh those of schadenfreude.
Elizabeth Gilbert will be discussing The Signature of All Things with Tribune religion reporter Manya Brachear Pashman on 10/30 at 7 PM at the Palmer House Hilton. Tickets available here.