I just finished reading The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, and oh my, how much I loved this book! I will preface my blatant love for it by mentioning that Elizabeth Gilbert is probably my favourite author, which is possibly not a popular viewpoint. Eat, Pray, Love is a book that came along at just the right time for me, and changed my life for the better in the wake of the broken engagement that I was going through at the time. Though Committed was not her best work, I gobbled that one up as well, eager to hear more of Elizabeth’s story. Having always been smitten with the author’s gift for beautiful prose and describing the indescribable, I was interested to see how she would do with a historical novel instead of the memoirs I was accustomed to. This book didn’t disappoint.
The Signature of All Things is set in Pennsylvania in the 1800’s. It follows the story of Alma Whittaker, a large and unfortunate-looking woman with a brilliant scientific mind, born to a no-nonsense Dutch mother (Beatrix) and the richest man in Philadelphia, Henry Whittaker, who made his own fortune by funneling his expertise as a botanist into profits in pharmaceuticals. Alma suffers many disappointments in life, and with nowhere else to channel her energies, she successfully becomes a well-respected expert botanist as an adult herself, in a time when most women did not work outside the home.
This book has a colourful cast of complex characters who I came to adore even as they sometimes infuriated me. The relationship between the selfish, egotistical Henry and his daughter Alma was interesting to watch unfold. I loved the dynamic between Alma, her adopted sister Prudence (who was so uptight but whose inner self was slowly revealed over time), and Retta Snow, the fanciful girl who thaws the frosty relationship between the sisters when the trio are together as friends. I wished I could have grown up with my own Hanneke de Groot as my personal nanny. I adored the stark contrast of Alma’s methodical search for facts, truth and answers about the world, set against her love for Ambrose Pike, an ethereal artist concerned with God and angels. There is love, sensuality, disappointments, tragedies, travel tales, philosophical points, and much focus on the cutting-edge science of the day.
One of my favourite parts of the book was how the author was able to weave real historical figures into the fictional story of the Whittakers. Before Alma was born, Henry had travelled on a botanical expedition on board Captain Cook’s third voyage. Charles Darwin was also a figure featured later in the book, to great effect! It was also interesting to read about the ideas of science that would have been considered bold and controversial at the time, knowing all we take for granted about evolution today. And Gilbert has a gift for using the flowery, descriptive language reminiscent of the 1800’s when the book is set, while still being readable in contemporary times.
Alma’s grapples with what’s important, what she wants to make of her life, and her “AHA moments” reminded me of my own and got me thinking about decisions I’ve made as well. It’s a rare novel that can do that.
My only criticism of the book is the portion in Tahiti was a bit of a slog to get through; it was less interesting to me than the rest. It could have been shorter. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book and hope you’ll let me know what you think of it.