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PLANTING the seed

Eat, Pray, Love author Gilbert turns her pen to historical fiction

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With this fascinating tale of nature versus nurture, a historical novel written in stunning detail, Elizabeth Gilbert surely adds another bestseller to her impressive tally.

The American author's sixth book will spark many lively discussions on blogs, in stores and at book club get-togethers.

Gilbert returns to fiction with The Signature of All Things following her bestselling memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. Starring Julia Roberts, Eat, Pray, Love was adapted into a film in 2010.

Whether reflecting on her own travels and ideas about marriage or considering botanical studies and the mysteries of evolution throughout much of the 1800s, Gilbert is a compelling storyteller.

Her adventurous spirit and inquisitive nature, evidenced by her nonfiction works, leave a lasting impression in her writing. With The Signature of All Things, she once again showcases her command of narrative structure.

The story begins in the early 1800s in Philadelphia. Driven by a thirst for knowledge instilled in her by her seafaring, enterprising father, Gilbert's protagonist, Alma Whittaker, spends her formative years in her father's library.

Developing a knack for natural philosophy, she later dedicates decades of study to mosses, particularly those found on the grounds of her family's estate.

Nearing 50 and having never married, she meets the enigmatic Ambrose Pike, a weary traveller and artist who shares her appreciation for all things green and small.

Yet while Alma devotes her life to botanical research and scholarship, Ambrose desperately seeks divine intervention in pursuit of a utopian existence.

Their relationship is an unconventional one, but through their dynamic Gilbert cleverly reveals more about the lives of all her characters.

Eventually, Alma's insatiable curiosity takes her to Tahiti and then Amsterdam. Somewhere along the way, she begins to develop an idea she refers to as "A Theory of Competitive Alteration," which Gilbert eventually compares to Charles Darwin's work with the publication of On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859.

Canadian readers may hear an echo of Winnipegger Joan Thomas's 2010 historical novel Curiosity, about the early 19th-century paleontologist Mary Anning, whose discoveries prefigured Darwin.

Spanning a groundbreaking time in human history, between the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, The Signature of All Things raises lingering questions about science and religion.

In fact, Gilbert's title refers to a belief touted by an amateur botanist in 16th-century Germany, Jacob Boehme, that proof of God's love may be found in every root, stem, leaf, blossom and fruit in the natural world.

With death as a catalyst throughout the novel, Gilbert challenges her characters' own beliefs, inspiring compassion, courage and creativity. The result is heartbreakingly beautiful.

An engrossing read, The Signature of All Things is painstakingly researched, vividly penned and extremely relevant. The questions that intrigue Gilbert's characters continue to captivate the attentions of scientists and philosophers today.

She considers these revolutionary ideas with the rigour and enthusiasm of one who ponders many possible answers herself, and her effort is an enlightening one.

Jennifer Pawluk is a Winnipeg communications specialist.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 5, 2013 A1

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