Fall Titles: The Signature of All Things, The Lowland

This fall should be a good one for publishers and readers alike. Many beloved authors are coming out with new titles in September, October, and November, including Margaret Atwood (MaddAddam), Stephen King (Doctor Sleep), Amy Tan (The Valley of Amazement), and several others. I was lucky enough to read advance copies of two of these anticipated titles: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri, and The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.

lowland First, and most eagerly awaited, The Lowland: a friend of mine who attended ALA in Chicago snagged a galley and generously let me borrow it. Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, Unaccustomed Earth) treads familiar ground with a story of an Indian family, some of whom move to the American Northeast, and some of whom stay behind in India.

Those who read the fiction section of The New Yorker may recognize the first several pages of The Lowland, in slightly altered form; it was published as “Brotherly Love” in the June 10 issue earlier this year. The brothers are Subhash and Udayan: the elder is cautious, the younger is reckless (“[Subash’s] parents did not have to worry about him and yet they did not favor him. It became his mission to obey them, given that it wasn’t possible to surprise or impress them. That was what Udayan did”).

Though the brothers grow up side by side, their paths diverge, with Udayan becoming involved in a dangerous political movement – the drastic consequences of which echo for decades after Udayan’s death and Subhash’s marriage to his brother’s widow, Gauri.

The narration is a close third person, shifting perspectives every so often, from Subhash, to Gauri, to their daughter Bela, to the brothers’ mother Bijoli, and finally to Udayan. Lahiri creates intensely believable characters in the Mitra family, and she covers a significant time span with her spare, beautiful prose.

The Lowland has been shortlisted for both the National Book Award and the Man Booker Prize.

signatureofallthingsThe Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Stern Men; Eat, Pray, Love; Committed) covers an even greater span of time, at a much more leisurely pace. For once, I could not agree more with the Publishers Weekly review, which is a marvel of conciseness. This thoroughly researched story begins with Henry Whittaker, a scrappy young thief whose father works at Kew Gardens. Henry eventually becomes one of the wealthiest men in Philadelphia, and his daughter, Alma, grows up on the family estate, White Acre.

Alma is given all the advantages Henry did not have, especially education; but, because she is plain (especially compared to her beautiful adopted sister, Prudence), she must resign herself to spinsterhood while Prudence and their mutual friend, Retta, both marry.

Alma devotes her time to business – after her mother Beatrix’s death, she is Henry’s right hand – and the study of mosses. Her life continues in this quiet, circumscribed, but more or less satisfying manner until the arrival of Ambrose Pike, an orchid artist. For the second time in her life, Alma falls in love, and she and Ambrose marry, but the marriage is not what either of them expected, and Ambrose leaves White Acre.

Soon afterward, the inimitable Henry Whittaker dies, and Alma decides, finally, to leave White Acre and travel. She follows Ambrose’s path to Tahiti, and after a few years there, makes her way to her mother’s homeland of Holland.

Gilbert incorporates her research into the story in a way that is natural, not distracting – a harder task than it appears. From beginning to end, she maintains control over the story and the characters; I was aware of the narrator’s voice and presence throughout the time I was reading. Perhaps this slight distance was the reason I did not feel the full emotional impact of admittedly dramatic events throughout Alma’s life. Still, this is a unique book, and an especially great choice for those who are interested in botany, science, history, or travel.

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