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The Signature of All Things: A Novel Paperback – June 24, 2014
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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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
*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 --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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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. Her writing style itself draws the reader in, energetic and engaging and far more polished than I expected from someone best known for a mega-bestselling mid-life-crisis memoir (judge me all you like for that).
But too often in this 499-page book I felt Gilbert was perhaps getting carried away with her writing. Whole sections go on far longer than necessary (the Tahiti episode, for instance); at least 50 pages could have been cut without harming the story. Worse, the book feels weighted more toward narrative summary than scenes, which means we're being told a lot about the characters and their activities rather than being in the story with them watching events unfold. I've noticed this problem in a number of recent novels, and I don't know whether it originates with authorial lack of confidence or just the desire to cram in everything about a character's life, but it results in a less engaging and memorable story. When Gilbert gets into the scenes, it's excellent: the solar system dance tells us more about Alma's childhood than all the summary preceding it, and lingers far longer in the reader's mind besides.
The biggest problem with all the summarizing is that it distances the reader from the characters. Alma is well-developed and believable, and I enjoyed her story, but my investment came more from curiosity to know what would happen next than any emotional connection to her (and for all the science, this is still a novel, so emotional connections are to be desired). The secondary characters are colorful and often intriguing, but suffer from being described more than shown. Prudence, in particular, is potentially fascinating but gets too little page time, leaving her relationship with Alma not quite believable (they grow up together from the age of 10, without access to other children, and maintain a polite distance the entire time?). Ambrose works because we see his relationship with Alma develop as she experiences it. Retta is bizarre--in fact, all Gilbert's women have extreme personalities of one sort or another, and by the time Retta was introduced my suspension of disbelief was breaking. Henry is a mess of contradictions not really explained by the 50 pages spent on his backstory, though beginning with his adventures rather than Alma's childhood was an astute choice. For the most part I believed in these people, but by zooming out too often Gilbert kept me from truly knowing them.
Overall, then, I found this a worthy novel but not a great one, though it has great potential that a firmer editor might have captured. Not having read Gilbert before, I found it a pleasant surprise and an enjoyable read, and admire its bold choices. I just wish it had been a bit more focused.
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.
The plants collected by European botanists had the potential to make the collector extremely wealthy, if the plants happened to have medicinal properties to fulfil the European desire for protection from such diseases as malaria.Through his knowledge of plants, cleverness and impressive initiative, Henry Whittaker manages to amass a fortune from trading medicinal plants and thereby escapes his humble origins.
The focus of the novel is his daughter, Alma Whittaker, who from an early age is immersed in the world of plants and surrounded by spectacular and exotic specimens from far-away places. She is also born into extraordinary wealth, and lives the first half of her life in seclusion at her parents estate in Pennsylvania but connected with the world through her father's incredible trade in rare and wonderful plants.
In making Alma the focus, Gilbert is also bound to explore the position of women. In spite of her family's immense wealth, Alma's future options are greatly limited by her large and unattractive appearance. Realizing the truth of this Alma throws herself into her botanical studies, in particular, her chosen subject of mosses. They, like her, are unspectacular but work away quietly in the background of things.
Alma acquired, in her early teens, an adopted sister, the daughter of her father's employees who had died. Alma's plain appearance is emphasised by contrast with her spectacularly beautiful sister and the relationship between them is a guarded one.
The novel traces Alma's search for emotional connection and her unfulfilled sexual desire, at the same time as it celebrates her achievements as a world class botanist. Alma's character is explored in great depth. However, the supporting characters tend to be somewhat 2-dimensional and viewed from Alma's limited perspective: the beautiful and self-sacrificing sister, the husband who eschews sex in his search for spiritual experience; the ditzy friend who eventually becomes mentally unhinged.
The novel presents contrasting attitudes: the wholehearted pursuit of the spirit versus the belief in academic study and research as the highest goal.
The novel is full of surprises and Alma seeks fulfillment with courage. It was a thoroughly engaging read