The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Shelf worth: 5/5
How are you? Everything ok? Amazing! What did you read over Christmas? We'll catch up later because we start off with GREAT NEWS: the first Shelf Esteem of 2014 is an absolute stonker.
Sian initially piqued my interest in saying she was in love with a book about a six-foot redheaded woman. There aren't loads of us about. Any idea of my having a literary twin bounce away as soon as it becomes apparent that Alma Whittaker is way out of my league.
The only child of the ambitious and totally minted 19th century botanist Henry Whittaker, and no-nonsense Dutch genius Beatrix, Alma grows up on a magnificent estate speaking multiple languages and expected to behave as an adult. Through her studies, and to win the approval of her parents, she develops her own botany skills, discovers the joy of orgasm (best use of quim since The Avengers? Yes.) falls in love and tries to fathom the nature of her extraordinarily good, beautiful adopted sister Prudence. Nothing turns out to be quite as straightforward as plants.
I never knew Elizabeth 'Eat Pray Love' (I know) Gilbert was a novelist, but on the basis of this, she's a bloody good one. Rotten cover aside - if Sian hadn't gone nutso for it I would never have picked it up - this is practically flawless. It's a gorgeous, witty read that brings every flower, tree and stroke of ambition to life with superb flair. If you long for a saga that you can dive into and luxuriate in until you come out singing, then this is for you.
When given time to breathe, Gilbert's characters are fascinating. Immediately after we first meet Alma, the narrator dismisses her, rather marvellously, as too young to be of any interest. We're torn away to Henry's back story in Kew, Richmond and travelling with Captain Cook instead. Henry is a redheaded fury who insists on dressing in full powdered wig fig years after it stopped being fashionable. I loved the implacable Beatrix and her perfectly geometric, ordered gardens, and enjoyed the coterie of dazed botanists who Alma befriends, falls in love with or fights with.
The one dud note is a gorgeous peacock of a plot device - Alma's coquettish teenage friend Retta, who is a great character along with Prudence for the first third of the book until Gilbert seems to lose sight of her and puts her away in a bottom drawer. Similarly, Prudence has a fantastic story which we only hear about in passing. This becomes particularly frustrating in the last chapters.
It's testament to how engaging Gilbert's story is that none of this really matters. Alma's story, her determination, her realisation that she is a secondary character in other lives rather than the heroine of her own, it's all wonderful. I highlighted endless lines, either for the writing or the sense. Wit and wonder abound - where I recommended The Fault In Our Stars left, right and centre last year, I'll be doing the same with this in 2014. Cheers Sian!