I saw Liz Gilbert speak at the Malibu Public Library last June with my friend Melanie. It was a perfect location, of course, yet also strangely comic, populated as it was with the type of elderly Malibu resident who goes to all of the free events at the library, and so are inclined to maybe not defer to the visiting talent, giving celebrity its due. It was a refreshing crowd, and Gilbert managed them and their questions with grace and kindness.
Otherwise, she captivated, and at times it felt like it was just Gilbert and Melanie and myself sitting there. Gilbert spun tales of tales for over an hour, describing her tenuous relationship with ideas, and telling us all how her new novel The Signature of All Things came into being. Part of that story reminded me that Ann Patchett exists, and so off I went in fangirl zeal to read her latest works as well.
One of her slides showed the vast card collection upon which she had made and organized her notes. It filled seven large boxes. She investigated and researched for years…and then she started writing.
The patience and diligence and self discipline this task requires seems no small feat to me, a blogger who cannot bear to persevere through a post if it takes more than one sitting, abandoning a draft if distracted or called away by a more pressing matter.
But Gilbert’s patience is well worth it. Like her main character, Alma Whittaker, she seems to have had nothing but time. It is an epic tale of a woman’s life beginning with another, that of her father. The novel encompasses history, science, politics, geography, navigation, life aboard a ship, in the jungle, in the growing metropolis of Philadelphia in the 1800’s. But as any great story that catches my eye, it is about one person and her search for something.
I bristled at Eat, Pray, Love. I struggled academically through Committed in preparation for Gilbert’s appearance. But I absolutely relied upon The Signature of All Things, for it has gotten me through my latest episode of back pain, well, nearly. I still feel the pain, but I also still feel the novel.
She found herself pacing her rooms in the night, pressing one hand against her chest, for fear her ribs would cleave open and her heart would fall to the ground.
With this, Whittaker is experiencing extreme grief. But I find myself doing this – clutching my chest – in grief and joy and empathy alike. I am astounded to discover that I am not the only one. Whittaker may be imaginary, but she belongs to all of us now, as any good character does once she is put to ink. I barely restrained myself from clutching my heart as I read the last chapter and said goodbye to this story. My one regret about reading this book is that I raced through it so quickly because I was resting my back for more than a day. Better to have savored it.