The Signature of All Things Synopsis:
5th January 1800. Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks’ Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones).
An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.
The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad – most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern. (Booktopia)
The Signature of All Things is a weighty novel that comes with equally weighty expectations. It is the first fiction publication in several years from Elizabeth Gilbert, the author who gained almost a cult love or hate following after penning Eat, Pray, Love. It is a novel both of, and about, grand ambition. But, does it live up to expectations?
In The Signature of All Things Gilbert’s prose is infused with a knowing confidence and artistic flair I found an absolute delight to read.
The language and behaviour is of the time period, yet this in no way hinders a modern reader’s engagement.
Gilbert’s characters are beautifully realised – not a stereotype among them. Nuanced and flawed, they don’t always do what the reader wants or expects, and for that reason are all the more believable. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, I just love fictional works that are borne from and incorporate actual people and events throughout history. Henry Whittaker’s and later his daughter’s association with several eminent historical figures such as Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook add wonderful depth and authenticity to this novel.
Where does the wonderful title ‘The Signature of All Things‘ come from? Within the story an actual historical text of the same name written by Jacob Boehme is discussed at some length. In fact an astonishing amount of scientific and theological theory is woven throughout this novel, clear evidence of Gilbert’s reported three years of research, yet the characters are strong enough to carry this otherwise weighty material in a way that seems eminently plausible, and very compelling — an impressive feat.
The only weakness for me was a lull in momentum from about two-thirds of the way through the tale. Put simply, the plot was less complex in the latter third of the novel, as many of the wonderful characters the reader, along with lead character Alma, had grown to love departed. But I suppose when a novel by design spans a human’s lifetime its vitality will to some extent wane as they age.
The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is a celebration – of inquiring minds throughout history that have advanced society; of the ability to succeed no matter how humble a person’s origins; and in particular, of the unwavering strength, willpower and quiet sacrifice women have made in society across all vocations.
A novel filled with all the emotions of a lifetime, and one that reminds us the journey is more important than the destination, I wholeheartedly recommend The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
Genre: Historical, Literature, Romance, Drama, Mystery, Adventure
About the Author, Elizabeth Gilbert
Elizabeth Gilbert is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, as well as the short story collection, Pilgrims — a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award, and winner of the 1999 John C. Zacharis First Book Award from Ploughshares. A Pushcart Prize winner and National Magazine Award-nominated journalist, she works as writer-at-large for GQ. Her journalism has been published in Harper’s Bazaar, Spin, and The New York Times Magazine, and her stories have appeared in Esquire, Story, and the Paris Review.
Check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s official website.
Other reviews of The Signature of All Things
* My receiving a copy of this book from Bloomsbury did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions on this title.