On the way to Cambodia I read The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert’s novel version of the same thoughts she was mulling over in Eat, Pray, Love. It’s a Big Book built to house big ideas, the second novel, the one that tracks three generations across two continents.
The center of the story is a woman who becomes a naturalist, the favored daughter of a self-made botanical tycoon. She is a spinster, then a woman who marries late, then bitter and heartbroken, then bereft, then finally at peace. She finds that peace on Tahiti, where she goes to live for a few years – partly in search of her lost husband and partly in search of peace for herself. And like most fictional foreigners who wind up in exotic places, she finds that peace – the natives offer it to her. She communes, first emotionally and then physically, with a man who also loved her husband.
The story follows a standard journey arc – protagonist goes, learns, and returns home forever changed. And it’s capably done – the narrative was compelling, just like Eat, Pray, Love was compelling. But it contains some of the same utilitarian attitudes towards the exotic people in it – they are there to enlighten, to open the heart.
I’ve been thinking about depictions of foreign adoption in a narrative sense, and I think that a baby might be a discrete vessel to package this idea of change. Go, come back transformed: the adopted child that makes you a parent and a partial foreign citizen is a visible sign of this change, but one that allows the protagonist to maintain status as white, and contrast that whiteness with the adopted child and culture. The woman in The Signature of All Things never adopts a child, but she is adopted by a Tahitian community, and part of her impulse to wander is her sense that she doesn’t have parents or durable roots, precisely – that she doesn’t fit within her own community. Adoption could be a way to convey this sense of maturity – what is carried away is that new sense of belonging, a portable arrival, a human souvenir.
Another recent thick book, State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, interrogates the same trope. A white woman adopts a child from the Amazon. Her narrative is that she saved him, this abandoned boy, from death of a terrible infection. His parents were brutally careless with his life, incapable of caring for him, and so she took him away out of that darkness and gave him modern antibiotics. He is her son. During the story’s denouement, it is revealed that she is less savior and more kidnapper, and that she stole him away from his loving parents after promising to heal their boy. She clings to him, to her love for him, and likewise to her belief that they are unfit. She loves him, and so she has a right to him: the child is the manifestation of her love, so the child is the property of her heart.