— There are probably sexier, more extravagant ways to
celebrate great publishing fortune, especially for
someone who has been played onscreen by Julia Roberts.
But Elizabeth Gilbert did something unexpected after the
ruckus from her big break died down. She studied botany.
For 3 1/2 years.
a geek," admits the author of "Eat, Pray,
Love," the bestselling travel-and-self-discovery
memoir that sold more than 10 million copies, dominated
the bestseller list for 200 weeks, spawned the sequel
"Committed," was adapted for the screen by
"Glee" creator Ryan Murphy and launched God
only knows how many earnest trips to Italy, India and
Bali. "I was the girl who had her clothes picked
out for school a week before school started. I get
excited about learning stuff."
by a newfound love of gardening — "I wanted to
try to write a 19th century style novel about plants
because like all passionate gardeners that’s all I
wanted to think about," Gilbert says — the
research pays off handsomely in "The Signature of
All Things" (Viking, $28.95).
remarkable and compelling historical epic about science,
discovery and a woman painstakingly carving out her
place in the world, "The Signature of All
Things" taught Gilbert quite a bit. Like her
protagonist, the curious amateur botanist Alma
Whittaker, Gilbert can tell you more about mosses than
you might ever need to know.
know enough to know that I don’t know anything about
it, especially once you meet the people who know what
they’re talking about," she says, laughing.
"Mosses are a black hole into which you can fall
and never recover. There are so many varieties. But you
don’t get to be the oldest plant on earth by being
stupid and boring."
Alma, mosses represent a lifeline. Born to self-made
entrepreneur Henry Whittaker — a character so
flamboyant and charismatic in the first 50 pages that
Gilbert feared he’d take over the novel — Alma is a
wealthy, brilliant, disciplined woman, but her forays
into nature are limited to the huge Philadelphia estate
on which she grows up. Once she discovers the potential
of mosses as a field of study, however, life opens up to
her. "The world had scaled itself down into endless
inches of possibility. Her life could be lived in
generous miniature. … She had a task."
44, sees some of herself in Alma, a secretly sensual
woman who falls in love with the dreamy, ethereal artist
Ambrose Pike with not entirely happy results.
some ways we couldn’t be more opposite," Gilbert
says. "I’m more like Ambrose, with one foot with
the fairies. He’s open to the beyond and the
impossible. Alma doesn’t have any of that in
we share is a rapacious curiosity and excitement. She’s
a woman who loves her work. That is a story that doesn’t
get told very often. As a woman who does love her work,
I know that’s a particular kind of passion. I did not
want to write about a woman rescued or ruined by a man.
Alma is neither. She doesn’t get the prince the way
she wanted, but it doesn’t destroy her.
of the things I like most about women is their emotional
resilience. Women are able to endure unbelievable
amounts of disappointment and it doesn’t kill us. We
manage a sort of weird alchemy and turn it into other
you’ve read "Eat, Pray, Love," you know
Gilbert has shouldered her own share of disappointment
and done a bit of transformation herself. She’s
married to the real-life "Felipe" from that
book, a story she recounts in "Committed";
they live in New Jersey, where they run an import store
called Two Buttons. She has weathered the predictable
backlash against the book and remains grateful for its
still ask about ‘Eat, Pray, Love’; they probably
always will," says Gilbert, who calls it "the
godmother" of "The Signature of All
Things" for the freedom it brought her to work on a
project she loved. "I don’t begrudge it. ‘Eat,
Pray, Love’ has been the great giving tree for me, and
I understand their curiosity."
interviews, conversations are usually "half about
19th century botany and half about what’s it like to
be married to that Brazilian guy," she jokes.
"But I saw an interview once with John Mellencamp
where he was asked if he was tired of playing ‘Jack
and Diane,’ and he said, ‘Hardworking, decent people
don’t spend 45 bucks to not hear me play ‘Jack and
Diane.’ … I feel the same way. But it is nice to
talk about evolution and biology and botany."
who’s also the author of the novel "Stern
Men" and the story collection "Pilgrims,"
is determined to stick with fiction, at least for now.
had so much fun writing this book," she says.
"I kept thinking, ‘Why have I denied myself this?’
Well, I know why — I had some (stuff) to work out! But
it’s a real joy, a kind of salvation for me. One thing
I’ve noticed is that I’m incapable of doing that
kind of work while I’m in turmoil. I can’t make up
drama if I’m focused on my own drama. So it’s a good
sign if I’m in a place where I have so little drama I
can concentrate on other people’s."