What does it say about me that I can endlessly re-read classic novels like "Sense and Sensibility," "Jane Eyre," "China Court," "The Shuttle" or "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" and always find them deeply engrossing and entertaining. But hand me a current best seller and I am never quite as satisfied. I am not sure what I expect in a fiction book these days but I never seem to quite find it.
I just finished 499 pages of Elizabeth Gilbert's latest book — "The Signature of All Things" — getting engaged and annoyed in equal measure. Ultimately it was too over the top in its travels and travails. A main character who is always described in negatives whether her size, looks, hair, or personality. Two sisters who live in the same house but never speak and a best friend who is insane (literally). Not unlike life and yet not particularly involving or instructive in a novel. Or not presented in any way that worked for me.
I decided to read "Signature" because it was about a botanist, a subject I find fascinating. And our heroine was described as a person like me: someone who likes systems, sequences, pigeonholing, and indexes.
I will give Gilbert every credit when it comes to description and detail as this passage about handwriting shows:
“His penmanship was painfully crabbed. Each sentence was a crowded village of capital letters and small letters, living side by side in tight misery, crawling up on one another as though trying to escape the page.”
But I found the only time I paused to savor, to re-read a passage or to make a notation was when Gilbert actually was dealing with botany. Her pages and passages on mosses are pure rhapsody. As someone who has been nurturing a moss garden for years and has taken classes in the subject, waiting for those gems was what kept me reading. Here's a perfect little tidbit:
"Moss is inconceivably strong. Moss eats stone; scarcely anthing, in return, eats moss. Moss dines upon boulders, slowly but devastatingly, in a meal that lasts for centuries."
The fact that I fell in love with the botany and was not moved by a single character until Uncle Dees in the last few pages should be a lesson to me. Stick to non-fiction. When I want to take a fiction break I will steer clear of "important" fiction and just look for good, quick reads.
"China Court" is one of many excellent novels by Rumer Godden. "The Witch of Blackbird Pond" by Elizabeth George Speare is my all-time favorite youthful read. "The Shuttle" is one of Frances Hodgson Burnett's best adult novels.