Do We Really Want Fiction by 'Eat, Pray, Love' Writer Elizabeth Gilbert?

Photo by: Getty ImagesNo matter what your thoughts are on Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster memoir "Eat, Pray Love," or on Gilbert herself, the book sold a gazillion copies and became a manifesto for modern women seeking happiness at all costs, including relinquishing a career, marriage, home, success, whatever. If something wasn’t fulfilling, then leave it, and that’s exactly what Gilbert did.

“More than being a feminist, I’m like the winner of feminism. I won the results of their work,” Gilbert said in a recent New York Times magazine profile. So, will Gilbert take the world by storm with her new novel, "The Signature of All Things," a story of a 19th century botanist? Or, more importantly, will Gilbert’s fans who have come to love her as a “what is the meaning of my life,” expert, want to read her fiction?

Gilbert’s latest venture, which debuts on October 1, is not actually as far-fetched as we’d like to believe. She published a critically acclaimed novel before, "Stern Men," but the catch is that was 13 years ago, before the masses knew her name and began the debate of whether or not women who sought out happiness, no matter the consequence, were selfish or brave. Now, combining her love of horticulture, 19th century writers, and that ever-present quest for self-discovery, Gilbert is attempting with this novel to gain the same acclaim she did with "Eat, Pray, Love," but as a literary powerhouse, not a self-help guru.

“I just wanted to play with the people I love the most — Dickens, the Brontës, Eliot, James,” the 44–year-old said in a recent New York Times magazine interview. “I wanted to jump around in their world. It was fun as hell to set the bar that high.”

But will her fans appreciate her effort and want to peruse the fiction shelves for her name? I’m not convinced. I was part of those feverish "Eat, Pray, Love" discussions. As a young journalist trying to make a name for myself while navigating through an endless string of doomed relationships, I related to Gilbert for the most part, although she made it hard at times, excruciatingly hard, in fact.  I get that we all want to be happy, but I don’t know many people who can just end a relationship, stop working, move out, and pack it up to travel around the world when the going gets tough, or in Gilbert’s case, not all that tough it all – just too comfortable, safe, and God forbid, a bit boring. But her journey of food, meditation, and great sex became synonymous with modern women going after their dreams. Getting readers to relate to a 19th century heroine, however, might prove rather difficult.

"The Signature of All Things," set in the Darwin-era of the early 1800s, centers around Alma Whittaker, the unmarried botanist and daughter of a wealthy British transplant who made a fortune in Philadelphia in botanical pharmaceuticals. Alma, who is passionate about mosses, looks to nature to figure out life’s explanations instead of human behavior. That is until she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, but their miscommunication leaves Alma confused and depressed. She then seeks solace and understanding in exotic international trips where she discovers a whole new world, as well as herself.

I’m trying to keep an open mind, mostly because the reviews of "The Signature of All Things" have been very positive. In a review of the new book, New York Times writer Barbara Kingsolver wrote, “Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act.” The Wall Street Journal review, an excerpt of which is featured on Amazon, states, “The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert’s 20-year career:  a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical novel about a 19th century female botanist.”

I’m sure this book will do well, but Gilbert has solidified an international fan base as the queen of self-help, and the question about her transition back to fiction is not so much whether or not she can do it, but more so, will her fans even want her to?