Bailey's/Orange Women's Fiction Group discussion

The Signature of All Things
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2014 Books > August 2014 Book The Signature of All Things

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message 1: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val Welcome to the discussion thread for August.
Our book from the current list is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

Diane I'm almost half way through and what a thoroughly enjoyable book. I'm listening to it and the reader is wonderful. Actually I'm not sure but that the reader isn't greatly enhancing the book.

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments i have already read this book (last year, actually), so won't re-read it so soon, but will likely jump in later in the month once things aren't so spoiler-y. :)

i do hope those reading it this month will love it as much as i did - i just found it a wonderful and surprising read. (surprising because while i was interested in the subject...i didn't have any expectations, good or bad. the only gilbert i had read previously was Stern Men (which i actually went back and reread after i finished TSoAT). i did not jump on the Eat, Pray, Love bandwagon...though i did feel that gilbert was fairly harshly judged for that work.) anyway...all of that, and the fact it was one of my favourite reads of 2013 did catch me by surprise, which was nice. i have since passed along the book to my mum and stepdad, and they both loved it too. (phew!!)

if you have not watched this, gilber gave a tremendous TED talk on creativity -

Diane Thanks for the link Jennifer.
Personally, I liked Eat, Pray, Love. I listened to it while driving and would be annoyed that I was arriving where I had to be so soon because I wanted to hear more.

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) I've just started this and am really enjoying it so far - I haven't read any of her books before, but did really enjoy the film of 'Eat, Pray, Love', so I will aim to read it before too long.

message 6: by JenniferD (last edited Aug 09, 2014 09:15AM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments i really pay attention to epigraphs or quotes if they are offered at the start of a novel.

at the beginning of 'the signature of all things', gilbert writes:
“What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.”
that line is a bit of a riddle in itself, and gilbert commented on her thoughts about it (which i will hide, but it's not really spolier-y as far as plot details, but just in case...) (view spoiler).

i am wondering what you felt or thought when you read this quote?

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments i actually didn't know what to make of the epigraph when i first read it - it certainly was a bit of a puzzle for me. i have an easier time defining life in scientific terms or biological terms, as far as the 'what life is' piece of the quote. 'what life does' could be interpreted in many different ways, i think.

Diane Jennifer, I think the quote sums up my thoughts on life better than I could ever express. I just don't know or understand about life.

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments Diane wrote: "Jennifer, I think the quote sums up my thoughts on life better than I could ever express..."

it is a wonderful pair of sentences!

i feel it also sets up the story to be a big one - it definitely got my curiosity going in a 'hmm...well what do we have here?' sort of way! :)

message 10: by Judy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) I was interested in the mentions of Omai in the opening section about Henry's voyage with Captain Cook, since I remember seeing a TV documentary about Omai and how he became an 18th-century celebrity.

Here is a link to a page about Omai at the Captain Cook birthplace museum. It doesn't say what happened to him after his return to the South Sea Islands, but his Wikipedia page says he died a couple of years later.

And here is a page about a Sir Joshua Reynolds exhibition at the Tate Gallery in London, which includes his famous portrait of Omai:

message 11: by Val (last edited Aug 10, 2014 09:00AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I thought the setting for the story in the opening section was very well done. Gilbert includes enough historical people, places and events to give a base to build on.

This is what the epigram made me think about:
Botanists in the C18th were perhaps more certain that they knew everything about 'what life did' than modern ones. They were discovering new plants from around the world and had a classification system to put them in. The propagation techniques developed then are still in use. There have been more investigations into the details of life processes since and this seems to have led to less certainty that we know all there is to know.
'What life is' had perhaps just started to become a scientific question as much as a philosophical or religious one around that time. I'm not at all sure that we are any closer to an answer now.

Penny | 680 comments Mod
Just about to start this one!

message 13: by Judy (last edited Aug 17, 2014 10:29AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) I've read about 130 pages now, but am not sure whether I'll carry on - I enjoyed the first section about Henry a lot, but am now finding it less interesting, as none of the characters is very sympathetic.

Also... I'm not sure whether to mark this as a spoiler but will do just in case.

(view spoiler)

Diane Judy, there are a couple of unnecessarily vulgar parts in the story and I would have rated it higher but for them. Overall though, I found it a very a good read. I especially liked how Alma totally changed her perspective on many things, her sister, her husband, her life, as the story progresses.

message 15: by Judy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) Thanks, Diane - that makes me feel that I will carry on for a bit, anyway.

Maggie Anton | 7 comments There were several times when I considered putting the book down, but my sister had recommended it highly so I persevered. And was glad each time that I continued reading. I confess that at one point I was so confused about where the story was going that I skipped through quickly to the end. That's when I knew I had to read it all the way through. I never read Eat, Pray, Love [nor saw the movie] or any other of Gilbert's books. But she is clearly an excellent writer, and while there were many times I didn't know where she was taking me with this one, I am so glad I followed her road.

message 17: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I enjoyed the book a lot, but do agree with you all that there was quite a lot of vulgarity, which did not add much to the story.

Ruthie (ruthiea) | 70 comments I really enjoyed the book, and at some points I felt that the sexual portions could have been omitted, but in the end (no spoilers yet) they kinda made sense in painting a full picture of the characters - they did have sexual desires whether or not they were fulfilled and that is important. In historical fiction we so often read about "Old Maids/Forever Bachelors/etc." but never about if they had sex lives/desires despite never having married, and that is something that should be addressed. That being said, I am not sure it was always WELL addressed in this novel...

message 19: by JenniferD (last edited Aug 19, 2014 06:32PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments i mostly agree, ruthie. i didn't find the book vulgar at any point. and i am a bit surprised it's been called such in this group. i just felt that alma's growth and development also included her sexuality. though i will admit the word 'quim' made me giggle every single time. though it is a more delicate term i suppose. :)

gilbert touched on the issue of sex, in an interview with the chicago tribune:

Q: From the first page of "The Signature of All Things," I was struck by the sense of not just reading historical fiction, but of having it narrated by something of a historical voice — the voice of a novelist of the 19th century — and yet it's not quite that at certain points of the story, if you know what I mean.

A: (Laughs.) I know exactly what you mean.

Q: It's like Charles Dickens with sex.

A: (Laughs.) Oh yeah.

Q: So how did you come up with that voice, and how did you calibrate it?

A: Well, you definitely started off on the right track with Dickens. He's my role model in all things writing, but particularly in this book. The thing I love about Dickens, and was trying to emulate, is the omniscient, omnipotent narrator, and the great confidence of the narrator, which marks 19th-century novelists in general and Dickens in particular. Dickens often has these very exuberant narrators, who convey the sense that "Not only do I know what I'm doing, and we're going to go on an adventure — it's going to be a terrific adventure." That's something he did magnificently, and I tried to emulate that.

At the same time, I didn't want to pretend that this book was written in the 19th century. Dickens never could write about sex. (Jane) Austen could never write about sex. (George) Eliot could never write about sex, except in the most oblique way. And I wanted to be able to explore these characters and their intimacy in a way that I wouldn't have been able to do if I were purporting to write an actual period novel. And I did struggle with how to do that, until I read "Wolf Hall." It felt like a lightbulb went on, because Hilary Mantel does such a magnificent job of writing in a way that feels accurate to the period without feeling like she's pretending to write a book that's 400 years old. It's a very modern voice that she uses to write about a very distant time, and that's what my aspiration was.

link: (potential spoilers on page 2 of interview.)


i am a huge beatrix potter fan, and while reading gilbert's novel was continually reminded of her. it did turn out the gilbert used potter as a model for alma during her early years.

Penny | 680 comments Mod
Lots of interesting thoughts - good to hear from so many of you. I am about a third through now and so far am really enjoying it! Fingers crossed it wont be another 3* read!!

message 21: by Judy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) Jennifer, I'm really interested to hear about Beatrix Potter being an inspiration for the character.

I'm up to page 250 now and enjoying it more, but still not really loving it - I wish there was more about Prudence, who seems more interesting than Alma.

message 22: by JenniferD (last edited Aug 23, 2014 02:46PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments Judy wrote: "Jennifer, I'm really interested to hear about Beatrix Potter being an inspiration for the character..."!! so, i had a chance to ask gilbert a question, as part of a reading group for a toronto newspaper. because i was quite familiar with potter already, while reading about alma in TSoAT, i just kept thinking about beatrix. both women were untraditional, and working in traditionally male fields of natural science. both also had fathers who supported their endeavours. so when it came time to pose my question, i had to ask gilbert if i was imagining it, or if there was, in fact, a bit of beatrix in alma! here's where the book was featured (but be aware there may be spoilers if you haven't finished the book yet. my question is 3rd...and has no spoilers.) (:

i highly recommend Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, by Linda Lear - if you are interested in reading more about potter. this was a terrific biography!

message 23: by Judy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) Thanks, Jennifer - I've just looked at your question so far, as I am still in the middle of the book, but will go back later to see the others. Beatrix Potter had links with my home area, and I've seen an exhibition of her work at Melford Hall in Suffolk, which has made me interested to find out more about her. I also enjoyed the film 'Miss Potter', and will aim to read that biography.

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments i loved the film 'miss potter' - i thought it was so lovely. i would love to have a chance to visit her area of the lake district -- it's on the bucket list! :)

message 25: by Judy (new) - rated it 2 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) Although I'm in the UK, I've never been to the Lake District either, but hope to do so in the next year or two! Potter used to visit Suffolk to stay with cousins.

Penny | 680 comments Mod
I am almost done with this one - it seems to meander a little in the middle - almost losing direction but not quite. Alma is a very unique character but I really cant get my head around Prudence at all. I have just finished listening to The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd which interestingly is about abolition and is partially based in the same area as TSoAT. I find that after reading the Sue Kidd book I am much more interested in Prudence - her convictions and resolutions are so much more part of the world around her whereas Alma is really in a bubble of White Acre. I felt for her so much when Ambrose turned out the way he did - I wondered if such a down to earth woman would have behaved as she did and decided that yes, with that kind of isolation and naivety it was possible. Have never read this author before and I would read more of her. As I say I havent quite finished yet - am off on holiday so will get it done there!

Penny | 680 comments Mod
Finished it while away - and I have to say that it filled and grew for me. I was sad when it finished. I enjoyed the originality of the characters and the fact that Alma was not a typical female protagonist - she was a risk for the author as she is not always sympathetic or someone to identify with. I felt though that it was right that she was given central stage. I still would have liked to hear more from Prudence - was she a kind, loving, principled woman who gave everything for Alma but was unable to speak with her. Or was she a total cold fish?
I also loved the breadth of this novel. Each area was very defined and easy to imagine. Henry in the first part is so easy to conjure up as a naughty, grubby Artful Dodger type character. White Acre itself was a wonderful construction, an image of powerful women quietly 'doing' while the man huffs and puffs!! Then the whole section on the island - again so clear to see and frustrating to watch as Alma wallows in her grief.
For me this novel was worth the effort of the earlier pages and the changes in pace that pepper the novel. It is not a romp - more a walk, then a burst of sprinting, followed by solid jogging!

Diane Penny, I agree. It was, for the most part, very good.

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments penny, i am really glad this turned out to be a good read for you, and worth the effort!!

Penny | 680 comments Mod
Jennifer wrote: "penny, i am really glad this turned out to be a good read for you, and worth the effort!!"

yes Jennifer - my track record recently has not been good but this one and The Invention of Wings have been my best reads of recent months.

JenniferD (booktrovert) | 343 comments that's great, penny!! i have had a real run of disappointing reads for a while now, it's frustrating. i am hoping for something awesome soon, to break the pattern. :)

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