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The Signature of All Things: A Novel Hardcover – October 1, 2013


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Best Books of the Month
Best of the Month
Amazon's editors selected this title as a Best Book of the Month. See more about The Signature of All Things on the Amazon Books blog, where Elizabeth Gilbert talks with Senior Editor Mari Malcolm about the spectacularly rare book, botanical explorers, and Polynesian islands that inspired her.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover; First Edition edition (October 1, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0670024856
  • ISBN-13: 978-0670024858
  • Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.6 x 9.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2,365 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,598 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month, October 2013: As a small girl, Elizabeth Gilbert scrawled her name in the most extraordinary book in her house: an original illustrated folio of Captain Cook’s voyages. Decades later, her parents discovered her signature and gave her the book, reigniting her passion for scientific exploration in the century leading up to Darwin’s theory of evolution. She became fascinated with the women—always wives or daughters of scientists—who made their own discoveries, in spite of the cultural constraints that kept them from true exploration. Her invented heroine, the insatiably curious Alma Whittaker, daughter of a scrappy botanical baron, spends most of her life confined to her family estate in Philadelphia, yearning for a life of greater passion and liberty. She channels her desires into botany, thrilling to the miniature universe of moss in the forests surrounding her house, developing a new taxonomy that becomes a theory encompassing all living things, parallel to Darwin’s. When she finally turns herself loose on the world, it’s to claim her place in a lineage of explorers. An earthy, elegant, deeply sensual novel of daring breadth and imagination, The Signature of All Things gives us the cosmos in the life of one woman, in her worlds within worlds. –Mari Malcolm

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Gilbert, the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006), returns to fiction with her first novel in 13 years, and what a novel it is! Taking her sweet time and digressing at will into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she tells the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. Born to Henry Whittaker, “the richest man in Philadelphia,” who rose from his station as the son of a lowly gardener to an import tycoon, Alma has the benefit of wealth and books, spending hours learning Latin and Greek and studying the natural world. But her plain appearance and erudition seem to foretell a lonely life until she meets gifted artist Ambrose Pike. Their intense intellectual connection results in marriage, but Ambrose’s deep but unorthodox spiritual beliefs prevent them from truly connecting. Alma, who has never traveled out of Philadelphia, embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Tahiti to Holland, during which she learns much about the ways of the world and her own complicated nature. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The publisher is pulling out all the stops for the high-profile author, including both print and online campaigns and an author tour; Gilbert’s celebrity may also draw off-the-book-page interest. --Joanne Wilkinson

More About the Author

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.

Customer Reviews

Very interesting characters In this story.
Pamela hinton
Wonderfully fascinating, compelling characters, beautifully written, brilliantly researched.
wordsmith
This is one of those books that will stay with you long after you've finished reading it.
Dove Jack

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

377 of 405 people found the following review helpful By Candace Siegle, Greedy Reader on October 1, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This was my first time reading Elizabeth Gilbert--I'm one of the six people in the universe who didn't read "Eat, Pray, Love"--and I'm glad I didn't approach this novel with any preconceived ideas. I'm sure it's nothing like her previous bestseller, but if that book can propel this book high on the lists that would be great. "The Signature of All Things" is a lovely novel, beautifully written with great scope and rich characters.

The novel is full of small delights of writing. Money, Gilbert writes, follows Alma's father around "like a small, excited dog." The nineteenth century enchantment with science and the natural world is expressed fully and with the sense of wonder Alma and her family felt. Alma is educated in the 19th century way by her autodidact botanist father Henry and her classically educated Dutch mother, who want her to be able to understand the world on many levels. She does, and she doesn't.

Where the novel falters is in the secondary characters, notably Alma's adopted sister Prudence and their friend, Retta. Both characters are meant to offer contrasts to Alma's cerebral, carnal aspects, but as people they are not believable, nor are their marriages. The novel becomes a little unmoored--as does Alma--once she leaves White Acres for the greater world. These are strange false steps in an otherwise assured work.

But you know what? Who cares! It might take a little suspension of disbelief in the last third or so of "The Signature of all Things" but each page is still a pleasure and otherwise it might just be too perfect. May this quality novel have the success of Elizabeth Gilbert's other books. It would be nice to see it at the top of the NYT bestseller list.
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145 of 153 people found the following review helpful By E. Smiley on November 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
When I see a book about a female botanist in the nineteenth century, I expect one of two storylines: either "woman fights sexism to pursue her dreams" or "unconventional woman finds fulfillment in romance"--or both. This book flirts with both narratives but settles down with neither, and is better for it.

The Signature of All Things is a big, ambitious book, beginning with the world-spanning exploits of one Henry Whittaker, thief turned botanist, in the late 1700s, before moving on to his daughter Alma about 50 pages in. Alma grows up fantastically wealthy and encouraged to follow scientific pursuits, falls in love with a local publisher, and you think you know where this is going.... but then, well, it doesn't go that way, and a third of the way through the book she's 48 years old, and then the real story begins.

One of the difficulties with this novel is that there's no real driving plot--or rather, Alma's life is the plot, though there are some significant time-skips--but it consistently defied my expectations and kept my interest. It's a book about the Enlightenment, with a lot of research and discovery and expanding of horizons, and I came away impressed with Gilbert's respect for science. Alma is someone whose intellectual life is as important to her (perhaps more so) than her emotional life, and most authors would have a hard time writing about that sort of character in a positive and believable way--which makes sense; writing a good novel almost always requires an author to be intensely interested in feelings. But Gilbert balances the science and emotion well, and even has me looking at mosses (Alma's specialty) with new eyes.
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206 of 230 people found the following review helpful By tea on October 1, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Let me start by saying that I have indeed read "Eat, Pray, Love". Yep, that's the camp I belong to. Also, I totally loved it. Yep, that's the sub-camp I belong to.

Though I am not much into fiction, I was mildly curious to find out how Ms. Gilbert would walk out of memoir mode and segway into the world of fiction (not sure if this is her first fiction but it's the only one I have picked up).

Would she be able to enrapture, intrigue and delight us with a tale borne out of her imagination, as she had with her own true story in "Eat, Pray and Love"?

Well, the answer is a resounding yes!

And by golly, does she have a tale to tell.

Set in the 18th -19th century, the story revolves around Alma, the daughter of the very wealthy Henry Whittaker. From her father, Alma has inherited a penchant for plants. She spends most of her waking hours trying to make sense of the botanical world around her, perhaps in an attempt to understand her own existence. But through the course of her life, she is made to realize how little she knows about her own world, her own self.

The story has been skillfully woven into a rich tapestry of adventure, emotions and science. Something also needs to be said about the amount of research that must have gone in; the book is peppered with facts that have been laid out in a manner almost poetic.

"Alma learned to tell time by the opening and closing of flowers. At five o'clock in the morning, she noticed, the goatsbeard petals always unfolded. At six o'clock, the daisies and globeflowers opened. When the clock struck seven, the dandelions would bloom. At eight o'clock, it was the scarlet pimpernel's turn...."

Facts infused with poetry or perhaps poetry infused with facts?
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