Poor Elizabeth Gilbert. I’ll admit I haven’t read her newest book Big Magic. But I have read the tweets, the posts, the sizzling, angry internet commentary, the frantic clacking of anonymous keyboards crying out the same old tune: “I would never read a book by Elizabeth Gilbert!”
Why? Well, Gilbert’s 2003 explosive bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love, is decried by a certain set as being an undeserving, glossy, saccharine, paint-by-numbers, aimed-at-Oprah piece of vain, commercial ephemera. This assessment is lobbed, sometimes, by people who are just familiar with the (pitiful) Julia Roberts movie, or are aggrieved by the book’s feverish publicity. No one that successful could be any real good, right? So, Gilbert gets consigned to unsophisticated airport-paperback hack.
I know this because I was one of those people, unreasonably disinclined to try the popular and the “pedestrian.” Fortunately, a savvy literary friend of mine mailed me a copy of Committed, Gilbert’s excellent non-fiction investigation into the institution of marriage, on the brink of my own wedding. I was smitten, and was lucky that a person wiser and less pretentious than I had punctured my imperious bubble.
When Gilbert’s 2013 The Signature of All Things came out (her first fiction book in more than a decade), it was my favorite book the year. Signature is the tale of a lonely, dowdy, brilliant, nineteenth-century heiress-turned-botanist, a scholar of mosses, who sails to Tahiti and accidentally stumbles upon the Theory of Evolution. It’s a beautiful, fascinating book, sweeping and epic but, despite the dour-sounding description, never plodding or dull.
This is because Gilbert’s writing is sparkling, electric; she is so graceful that the book feels almost like it’s happening underwater: heavy, yes, but also weightless. Signature makes you understand why we have long described storytelling with sewing words—”spinning” tales, “weaving” fantasies—it’s delicate and edgeless and silky, but when tied all together, tenacious.
How many people can take subjects of such drudgery—a single, chaste, ugly woman studying science’s most boring, lifeless, unmoving, unimpressive, unattractive thing: moss!—and ignite it with the inner light and nuance and energy that Gilbert does? Who can make us root for a spinster heroine and her life’s love of fungus? I submit that only Gilbert, nurturing, intimate Gilbert, can flesh out this bleak world and breath such life into it.
But Signature, this near-perfect novel, is consigned to a footnote in Gilbert’s biographies, an “also wrote” after Eat, Pray, Love. To a certain reader, Gilbert will never overcome the flaw of her big break. To skeptics, I say: Gilbert began as a lauded magazine writer, drawing comparisons to Hunter S. Thompson and Ernest Hemingway for her straightforward, sometimes surreal journalism. Like moss, like all of us, Gilbert has evolved over the years. And the work that brought her fame also brought her the freedom to engage in the luxurious, copious, in-depth research behind The Signature of All Things. The fruits of her success are delicious and—even if you disdain her earlier work—worth tasting.
Alison Currie is an attorney and writer in Atlanta, Georgia. You can find more of her writing at alisonsboomstick.com.