Done: The Signature Of All Things

This book, with its pretty cover and its intriguing title, has been tempting me for months on the shelves of bookstores and libraries. I have so far resisted it until I finally succumbed, though I had no great hopes of finishing it. Thankfully, I did, or just barely managed to.

On the cover of the book is written a quote from a review by the Washington Post, and one word in it resonated over and over again as I read this story: panoramic. This book is indeed a large-scale view of one woman’s birth, growth and life. It briefly delves into her own father’s boisterous life as a street urchin-type boy in England, to his growth into a man and how a series of bold decisions made his fortune and secured his position as one of the richest men in America. Nevertheless, the true heroine of the book is his only daughter, Alma Whittaker. Born into a world of botany, with a daring and preposterous father, and an intelligent mother with almost modernist thinking, Alma’s intellect is honed from a young age.

What I particularly like about Alma Whittaker and the plot revolving around her is how flawed she is. Maybe I’ve been reading too many nonsensical books lately with the usual plot line of a heroine who sets out to accomplish what she never thought she could before. Success is already a somewhat pre-determined destination, reading the book is merely to find out how she got there. With The Signature of All Things, though, this is not so. Despite her vast intellect, wealth and a little bit of self-centeredness, Alma Whittaker is far from capable of making the right decisions at the right time – just as we all are in the real world. She, like us, has her own needs and wants and goals, and also like us, she may sometimes unwittingly be blind to others in order to accomplish what she’d like. The fact that more than half of the book takes place when Alma is nearing her 50’s and has passed her menopause is also a testament to the fact that people do not necessarily become wise old sages with age, nor does their propensity to make huge mistakes, especially in areas where they have had no experience, decrease any. Without being villainous or unlikeable in the least, Alma still manages to screw up her life, and spend her time trying to find closure and work things out. But that’s OK, because that’s what happens in real life too.

I’m tired of heroines in most books only existing between the ages of 20 – 40. It’s like life doesn’t exist anymore after you get married, or after you turn 40. It’s like after 40 you should just be resigned to a life of stagnation and going downhill. I like that Alma Whittaker does not follow that typical storyline. She spends her fertile, adult years from the age of 26 to 48 simply studying botany and engaging in nothing else. What is usually the most exciting period in life for most of these fictional heroines is one of drudgery and routine clockwork for Alma. Her life takes a turn at the age of 48 when she meets a man – and while he does change her life, he does not necessarily come into it simply to sweep her off her feet, and have their relationship follow the typical process. I like that this story has a character who shows that life still exists after the age of 40, and one does not need to surrender to old age. I like that it tells that even after the age of 40, people are still people; they are still clever in their own ways, foolish in their own ways, the undesirable traits that they possessed in their youth may still be persistently present, as would the desirable. They (especially women) may still be struck with brilliant ideas and embark on the road to attaining unforetold achievements, or they may embark on an epic adventure across the globe, learning more about the world, themselves and the human condition along the way. Too many books with heroines center around the narrow age range of 20 – 40, which I feel inevitably encourages a thinking that once a woman hits 40, her life is pretty much over. Gilbert rebels against that, and I am thankful for it.

There is a luxuriant background of the emerging sciences in the Victorian period, and props to Gilbert for having done all this research to make this background solid and realistic. All too often, I have read books where characters claim to be experts in a certain field but there is no allusion to any detail of this field besides some passing, superficial facts that does little to elucidate exactly how ‘expert’ these characters are. This, thankfully, does not happen in The Signature of All Things. To adapt a phrase from a reviewer on Goodreads, this book felt like part-adventure, part-textbook and part-philosophy. The textbook parts comes in strongly whenever the subject of botany arises. I can see some finding these passages tedious and dry, but personally I found these passages to be interesting, and even essential in setting up the atmosphere of the book, drenching it in botanical discoveries, Latin names of plants and so on.

True to the blurb on the back cover, there is also a significant portion of the book dedicated to addressing religion, and the various ways people practise it. While some authors may skim past religion or cut it out of the book all together, I like that Gilbert gave religion its due presence. In the 1800s, religion constituted a huge part of how society worked, and how people made decisions. Whether or not in the modern context one agreed with the views and opinions of the characters involved here, I think religion would still realistically play a huge role in any character’s life, if they were purported to live in 1800s Europe.

Some found Gilbert’s writing rambling. I did not find it so, until possibly the last 70 pages which I skimmed through very quickly. The book is a hefty 600+ pages, and by the time I reached around page 530+, I was running out of steam. I think the last two parts of the book could’ve been condensed into one, and made more concise. Still, though, it illustrated an interesting and exotic picture of Tahiti island life, and elucidated on some Tahitian customs and beliefs which were new to me.

All in all, I enjoyed this book although I would’ve enjoyed it more if it had been just a little shorter. I love details and the setting up of extravagant backgrounds, but there was just a bit too much of it in this book. This is, however, preferable to the reverse. I generally enjoyed the characters, although would’ve liked to have had Alma and Ambrose’s relationship explored more deeply, as well as more backstory to characters like Retta, Prudence and George. This is a sprawling work chock full of not only botany and science, but also religion and the mystic. It is a beautifully detailed panorama, centering around a realistic and believable main character.

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Hints of trope

Now, I daresay I might be wrong about this.

I have just finished reading A Poisoned Season by Tasha Alexander, a historical fiction/mystery set in the Victorian era. While it isn’t a bad book in itself, I found myself weary from all these tropes that I seem to be uncovering in the 3 recent books of historical fiction I’ve read recently:

1. Main female character is a widow (usually aristocratic).
Lady Emily Ashton in A Poisoned Season, Lady Anne Darby in The Anatomist’s Wife, Christine Derrick (late husband was the son of an earl) in Slightly Dangerous. I suppose that widowhood was the most attractive option for authors to place their heroine. It entailed sexual experience and therefore they could easily explain and do away the stumbling block of shy inexperience that most single unmarried ladies in the Regency/Victorian eras would realistically exhibit. They could easily tune in and recognise as much sexual tension and imagery as an author could possibly want to write into their plot, without worrying about realism. A mature unmarried lady would be looked upon as a spinster and would probably be viewed as unattractive, so widowhood would give authors a good excuse to have a mature, attractive, and – more importantly – available female for sexual exploits.

Maybe men found black veils attractive.

2. Late husband is unloved and unmourned.
Whether her late husband is a sordid and uncaring man, as is Sir Anthony Darby, the so-called anatomist in The Anatomist’s Wife, or had given to a habit of gambling, as did Oscar Derrick in Slightly Dangerous, the late husband of our main widow is usually unloved at the point of their timely demise. They are usually mourned outwardly, as befits social expectations, but hardly missed. This is a quick way for our main widow to have unengaged affections so the hero, in some guise or other, will be able to captivate her without having to break down the meandering form of potent grief and lingering emotions.

3. There is usually some mystery to solve.
And usually our main widow will find some pressing reason to be the one to solve it, despite that it was highly improper for women at that time to partake in such tedious activities that entailed running around so much. This is excepted in Slightly Dangerous, where our hero solves the mystery.

Mmm, yes, zebras.
Mmm, yes, zebras.

4. Our main widow is usually a social eccentric.
Because apparently being a widow, you are either promiscuous, or you are a social recluse/eccentric. In the case of the 3 books I’ve read, all the widows’ main objective in life was to defy High Society and to live their life against the grain by shunning the mechanics of High Society. Usually also because they have some all-consuming passion and interest (art, Greek, children) in a subject that made them stand out from the crowd of simpering young women whose only object was to marry the most titled, wealthiest man that would have them. Because they don’t care about men (supposedly, even though they all end up with one by the end of the novel) anymore. And also because they are widows, and therefore it is almost expected of them to behave against the grain. Somehow. Maybe. Although sometimes I wonder if this would be a popular plot device if authors actually knew enough about the complicated machinery of High Society in England at that time period to write about it. Having a widow avoid most forms of social interactions is a pretty easy ticket out.

Essentially the life motto of all the aforementioned widows.

5. Our main widow usually also has some kind of unsavoury reputation
Being well-respected is for sissies. Widows have to prove their badassery and to proclaim their notoriety by having an unsavoury reputation in Society. Being unnatural because of her husband’s scientific pursuits for Lady Anne Darby, being a flirt for Christine Derrick, and being scandalous for Lady Emily Ashton. But wait! It just won’t do for the widespread rumours of our poor widow to actually be true cos who know if that will scare the hero away? No, all these unfounded rumours are just meant to up our widow’s market value by imbuing notoriety on her honour, but not really actually destroying her innate goodness, so our hero can discover that all by his onesy.

6. Despite her unsavoury reputation, our main widow still gets all the dudes
Because that’s what unsavoury reputations are for! Our main widow, despite being 1) a widow, 2) notorious in Society and 3) hating all kinds of social interactions – still manages to bring all the boys to her yard! Somehow or other, even men notorious for their gallivanting and dalliances find enough in our main widow to want to turn serious for good. For Lady Anne Darby, despite her wanting to hide herself away in a corner of her sister’s castle, she still attracts the two most attractive men of the house party – the handsome rake, also son of an earl, whom every lady in society wants to bed, and our main hero, a wealthy gentleman, Mr. Gage. For Christine Derrick, most of the men in the house party are attracted to her, most of all our main hero, Wulfric, Duke of Bewcastle. She is almost proposed marriage to by the Earl of Ketridge. What a snatch! For Lady Emily Ashton, a pretender to the French throne, a cat burglar with stalker tendencies and a renowned flirt who is also a duke all want to bed her or marry her. That is not even counting the main hero in that story, Mr Hargreaves, who happens also to be one of the richest men in England. Well, well. Widows have all the luck.

Mary always enjoyed the gift of invisibility whenever her friend and recent widow, Lady Smithers, was in the same room.

It was fun at first, but the next time I read any historical fiction that answers all these tropes again, I think I may just give up within the first 10 pages.

Done: Dorchester Terrace

Now, this was a solid piece of work.

Dorchester Terrace is the 27th novel in the Inspector Pitt series by Anne Perry. This series has been running all the way from 1979 up till today, 2015 (a 31st novel is expected this year). Since this is my very first introduction to the Inspector Pitt series, I get this feeling that I’ve missed out a lot, but the book explains its own sprawling backdrop and history pretty well and I never found myself confused, though I did find myself extremely curious. I am going to set about tracking down the very first novel in the series once I work my way through the pile of library books I’ve borrowed and need to finish.

As fate would have it, though, I think this book is a nice inflection point in the entire story arc as a whole to start off a new beginner with. Inspector Pitt has now been newly promoted to the Head of Britain’s Special Branch (something like an internal security department) and consequently the problem(s) in this book have much more far-reaching political ramifications. Anne Perry wields her strong knowledge of the history of European politics to great effect here, and I am impressed and drawn in by the political web that she weaves around the central mystery. Now this is what I call a “stunning backdrop” to a piece of historical fiction, rich with exquisite detail but yet not overwhelming at the same time.

Allusions drawn to Inspector Pitt’s past as well as the detective and policeman he used to be made me guess that perhaps books prior to this one would deal with more home-grown detective mysteries. As such, I’m pretty glad I started off with this book, because as a starter I can appreciate it on its own without comparing it to previous stories. I’m sure that my love for familiarity and my comfort zone would lead me to lament the more serious direction and political concerns that the plot arc has taken with this book. However, having started on this book and appreciating it for what it is, I can happily continue on chronologically with the Inspector Pitt series with all its political intrigues, and check out the earlier Inspector Pitt stories with its traditional detective mysteries. I’m really excited about both of these different threads.

Anne Perry’s writing style is elegant and confident. She does not aim to make this novel sound like it came out of the Victorian era. Her language is generally modern, but written with a self-assured and well-practised hand so that it does not contrast too jarringly with the era she is writing about. Her focus is not on replicating the era itself in terms of linguistics, but in revolving around the human drama as well as the restricting hierarchies of society at that period. Her narrative style takes one into the minds of several different characters, jumping from Thomas Pitt, to his wife Charlotte, to his ex-boss Victor Narraway, to his aunt-in-law, Lady Vespasia, and so on. We are told the story from the perspectives of several different characters, and as such have a peek as to how they see the problem, themselves, and other characters, while also finding out what other characters think of them in turn. Though the narrative jumps around to different characters, I never found it confusing or hard to follow.

The plot in itself centers around what appears to be two different lines of mysteries. The first one is uncovered by Charlotte’s aunt, Lady Vespasia, who is informed that her former friend and acquaintance, Serafina Montserrat, is unwell and unlikely to recover in her old age. She visits the ailing Mrs. Montserrat, who is not only suffering from the pangs of dementia, but also the paranoia and fear that she might let slip dangerous secrets in her memories to the wrong person when she is unaware of whom she is speaking to. The entire scene, describing the bitterness of aging for such a once-brilliant personage, was heartfelt and impactful. Lady Vespasia, however, is not inclined to completely dismiss Mrs. Montserrat’s fears, although she mostly thinks it might just be pure fancy. She brings it forth to Victor Narraway, ex-Head of the Special Branch, who sets about doing his own investigative work just for the sake of having something to do, having lately resigned from a post he had held for 20 years previously.

Meanwhile, Thomas Pitt, now Commander of the Special Branch, is informed of some suspicious increase of interest regarding train signal points, and is led to believe that a possible assassination attempt might be made there against a minor Austrian Duke, due to visit England relatively soon. Though the Duke himself holds no political significance, but his assassination on English soil would carry with it widespread repercussions throughout Europe, with England at the heart of the mess. He finds trouble getting the Foreign Secretary, Lord Tregarron, to take his fears seriously. These two threads of mysteries seem wholly separate and irrelevant to each other at first, but as the book progresses, they are brought closer and closer to each until their intertwined nature and connection is revealed.

I particularly also love how Thomas Pitt encounters some very realistic problems with taking over a new, powerful position. His ex-boss, Victor Narraway, had held the position of Commander of the Special Branch for nearly 2 decades before him, and as such is given the respect that his post calls for. Thomas Pitt, however, finds that people generally think he might have been promoted before his time, and that he did not have what it takes to fill Narraway’s shoes, which consequently raises self-doubt within him. Most interestingly, Pitt reflects that perhaps it might be his own humble beginnings as a son of a gamekeeper that had held him back in gaining the social standing that his post deserves, rather than experience and skill as people claim. Victor Narraway, after all, was born a gentleman, and after his retirement from the Special Branch, was inducted into the House of Lords. Indeed, various allusions as to social standing is drawn through the novel, giving the world Anne Perry creates yet another facet.

Overall, I greatly enjoyed this book, though admittedly it took me some time to really get into it. Once the momentum started though, it was impossible to put down. I would definitely be finding more of Anne Perry’s books to read.