The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Overview: In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry’s brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father’s money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma’s research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.

Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert’s wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

Rona Simmons (06/17/17): Based on the accolades bestowed on Elizabeth Gilbert, I knew I would have to read one of her books. With the protagonist of The Signature of All Things a woman whose life centered on the study of mosses and who became a well-known botanist long before women undertook such a career or life’s work, this book clearly won (over the better known Eat, Pray, Love).

Though the prose seemed to me to be decidedly Victorian, the NY Times review called it modern and accessible. Still, Gilbert’s voice is refreshing and surprising. “...the signature of all things -- namely that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, ... containing proof of our Creator’s love.”

Alma Whittaker, despite her homely appearance is a protagonist worth our time. I noted Gilbert’s wonderful description and then realized it was what she had chosen for the back cover: “She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whittaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose. The reader soon learns if something good happens to Alma, read on, it won’t last.
Rating: ****

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