Astonishingly, at some point, a sputtering torch was thrust into her hands. Alma did not see who gave it to her. She had never before been entrusted with fire. The torch spit sparks and sent chunks of flaming tar spinning into the air behind her as she bolted across the cosmos—the only body in the heavens who was not held to a strict elliptical path.

Nobody stopped her.

She was a comet.

She did not know that she was not flying.

I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things and have to say I enjoyed it a lot more than I had expected to (having been sorely unimpressed by Eat, Pray, Love). While there are obviously many similar themes in both books—spirituality, exotic travels, self discovery, the purpose of life, etc—I much preferred the thoughtful, reserved pace at which events unfolded in this one.

The person from whom this book had been a gift had warned me that the writing style could get technical to the point of tedium but I actually found it beautiful in its own way. Poetry in its most familiar form can sometimes be too grand, too flamboyant, too hyperbolic. I loved the scientific details woven into some of the most beautiful scenes in the book and I appreciated that the protagonist’s hunger for knowledge and logic served as an anchor preventing some of the more “loopy” ideas from really taking flight (so the struggle between science and spirituality played out quite satisfactorily).

It was, overall, a very rich and engaging read. It made me think not only about how fallible humans are, and how volatile our emotions can be, but also how incomplete and imperfect our understanding of the universe is; has always been.

* Warning: Spoiler below *

It also made me read up a little more on the theories of natural and group selection in evolution because I could not understand why Alma was so confused over how altruism fit into her theory (and later, Darwin’s) of evolution. Was it really so far-fetched for her to believe that survival and rise of an intelligent species depended on both competition and cooperation? It’s just so frustrating, especially considering her intellectual depth when it came to other matters.

And then I started wondering if perhaps Alma’s refusal to publish her thesis even towards the end of her life was Gilbert’s way of reinforcing that she did indeed believe that it was never really about competition. That although Alma never left a huge legacy of success (by conventional standards), she had eventually found her life to be fulfilling and that was all that mattered. And that was definitely something I could relate to.

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