Elizabeth Gilbert allowed her inner gardener to run free. And a new novel grew.
“I wanted to write a book I would want to read,” said the best-selling author of “Eat, Pray, Love.” “I’m such a passionate reader ... and this is a big, fat, juicy good old-fashioned read.”
Released this week, Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” (Viking, $28.95, 504 pages) “is an action-adventure for plant lovers,” she said. “I’m really, really excited about this book. I’ve never had more fun.”
Other plant people agree. Author Amy Stewart (“Wicked Plants”) called it “a beautiful, sprawling, epic novel of botanical exploration that is sure to be on every gardener’s Christmas list this year.”
Its appeal is not limited to botany enthusiasts. On the cover of the New York Times’ Book Review section, author Barbara Kingsolver (“Flight Behavior”) wrote: “If ever a book were doomed to birth in a suffocating caul of expectations, this is it. ... (But) Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us to adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act.”
Gilbert has just started a book tour that will bring her to the Bay Area later this month. She’ll appear Oct. 16 at Dominican University in San Rafael.
“I want to take this book out to the people,” she said in a phone interview from her New Jersey home. “I can’t wait to share this story.”
Set in the 18th and 19th centuries, the hefty novel follows the adventures of charismatic botanical importer Henry Whitaker and his daughter, Alma, who becomes an accomplished plant scientist. Alma’s specialty: moss.
While caught up in controversies of her time, Alma becomes captivated by an enigmatic artist devoted to orchids. The contrast between moss and orchids is not lost on gardeners.
“One is of the earth; the other of the air,” Gilbert explained. “One is showy, beautiful and entirely impractical; a piece of God. The other is underfoot, undervalued but with hidden secrets and strengths. Where do orchids and moss meet? At the roots.
“Orchids also are packed in moss, which retains water and acts as a sponge,” she added. “Moss serves all sorts of purposes, while orchids really have only one – to be beautiful.”
Gilbert, 44, is best known for her globe-trotting memoir “Eat, Pray, Love,” which spent four years on The New York Times’ best-seller list and became a 2010 hit movie starring Julia Roberts.
Like Gilbert’s memoir, “The Signature of All Things” travels the world with stops in England, Holland, Tahiti and South America – but this time it’s in centuries past. With no book deal in place, Gilbert visited London’s Kew Gardens and Amsterdam’s horticultural libraries as part of her research. “And Tahiti, because it was fun,” she added with a laugh.
The success of “Eat, Pray, Love” allowed Gilbert the freedom to do whatever she wanted.
“This was a book I really wrote to entertain myself,” she said of “Signature.” “I’m at this moment of tremendous freedom in my life, a place where I never expected to be. I can fund my own projects and take as much time as I need. That’s how I could spend 31/2 years studying 19th century botany.”
That may seem like an unexpected topic, but botany was one area where a 19th century woman could excel when other intellectual avenues were closed.
“I wanted to celebrate a strong female lead in a sweeping intergenerational epic with ideas,” Gilbert said. “Botany was the only science where women were welcomed. Plants are so associated with women, it was a natural area for their interest. I had to consider the plausibility factor (for the book). It would be hard for Alma to be a chemist.”
Gilbert’s fascination with botanical exploration got nudged by a family heirloom: a 1784 edition of “Captain Cook’s Voyages.” (Cook’s disastrous third voyage propels part of her novel’s early plot.)
“It’s big, like something that belongs in a wizard’s library,” Gilbert said of her treasure. “It contains all of the ships’ logs and maps from all three voyages (to Tahiti and Hawaii). It was in our home while I was growing up. It became my magic book. When I was starting this (novel), it felt like a sign.”
Gilbert’s youth also inspired her interest in growing things. As a child, she lived on a Christmas tree farm in the Connecticut countryside. Her family had no TV, just lots of books.
“My mother had a huge vegetable garden,” she added. “When I got my own place (in rural New Jersey), I started with an imitation of my mother’s garden. We ate out of the garden all year.
“But then I realized I don’t really like growing vegetables, and some of the best produce anywhere can be found in our farmers markets. So now my garden is exclusively flowers. It’s a big loosy, floosy garden with delphiniums, echinacea, climbing roses and hydrangeas. It’s a kind of Beatrice Potter garden.”
Gilbert’s flower beds inspired more gardening, she said. “I recently dug up the lawn and replaced it with native wildflowers. I call it my bumblebee disco. It’s really, really cool and so rewarding.
“Like any gardener, I’m very worried about pollution and what’s happening to bees,” she continued. “There’s no life in the lawn. But the flower garden is constantly buzzing with all this amazing life. That’s where I go when I want to relax.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.