For anyone who has read Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert’s novel about Alma Whittaker may come as a surprise. Gone is the whiny, spoiled indulgence of the first 1/3 of Eat, Pray, Love. Alma Whittaker was not raised to be a whiner. She was not even raised to think about the divine. Instead, Alma was raised to be the ultimate rationalist. Her father’s searing reason took him from the slums of London to a palace in Pennsylvania. Her mother’s surgical precision instilled in Alma a scientific discipline that left little room for emotion. Love finds Alma, however, as does lust. Lust, like all of her knowledge, comes from books. The lab in which she experiments is a binding closet. Yes, a binding closet. Lust also finds Alma in the person of Ambrose Pike, whom she comes to love only after he is gone and she has pursued his ghost halfway around the world.
Gilbert’s Alma is an unlikely woman, but not so unlikely for the 18th century. She is tall, ungainly, broad, plain, and cursed with curly hair before the age of silicone-based hair products. She is talented in languages and has a wide capacity for categorization. Unlike Gilbert, Alma’s world remains, for more than half of her life, contained to her family estate. Then to an island, then a ship, then the city of Amsterdam. Her body is bound by physical space, but her mind ranges widely, even to the great theory of her day, evolution.
Gilbert’s writing is precise, much like Alma’s mind. Like Alma, Gilbert’s prose finds moments of poetry. Gilbert embodies Alma’s voice so beautifully that we see through Alma’s eyes even as we look on Alma with wonder and pity.
The title reveals Gilbert’s continuing interest in the divinity of the world. The signature of all things, we are told, is an idea that God revealed the secret of the world throughout nature. We have only to look closely enough, to listen closely enough, to perceive it.
I finished this novel wondering what moved Gilbert to write it. Why Alma in the 18th and 19th centuries? The book jacket may provide one clue: Alma’s “age” is described as “that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas.” Another clue comes from Gilbert’s acknowledgements, in which she quotes Christine de Pisan and gives special recognition to all women of science. Because women have always asked Gilbert’s questions, even when they did not have the voices to ask them publicly or for posterity.