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The Signature of All Things: A Novel Paperback – June 24, 2014
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"A rip-roaring tale... unlike anything Gilbert has ever written... Its prose has the elegant sheen of a nineteenth-century epic, but its concerns... are essentially modern." —The New York Times Magazine
"With this novel about a young, nineteenth-century Philadelphia woman who becomes a world-renowned botanist, Gilbert shows herself to be a writer at the height of her powers." —O, The Oprah Magazine, "Our Favorite Reads of the Year"
"The most ambitious and purely imaginative work in Gilbert's twenty-year career." —The Wall Street Journal
"Like Victor Hugo or Emile Zola, Gilbert captures something important about the wider world in The Signature of All Things: a pivotal moment in history when progress defined us in concrete ways." —The Washington Post
"A masterly tale of overflowing sensual and scientific enthusiasms in the nineteenth century." —Time, "Top Ten Fiction Books of the Year"
"Raucously ingenious... a novel of brave and lovely ideas... I found unshackled joy on every page." —The Chicago Tribune
"Alma's extraordinary life unspools like a Jane Austen novel... Here Gilbert claims her rightful spot as one of the twenty-first century's best American writers." —Outside
"Gilbert writes so wonderfully it's impossible not to swoon... Alma's drive for personal epiphany feels absolutely contemporary." —The Boston Globe
"A beautifully written, grandly expansive historical novel... Gilbert's writing is so smart and richly drawn that it does what all the best books do: it sweeps you up." —Entertainment Weekly
"Dazzling... a big-hearted, sweeping, unforgettable novel... If you don't think science or historical fiction can be bright, funny, and engaging, this novel will quickly prove you wrong." —The Miami Herald
About the Author
Elizabeth Gilbert is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat Pray Love, Big Magic, and several other internationally bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction. She began her career writing for Harper's Bazaar, Spin, The New York Times Magazine and GQ, and was a three-time finalist for the National Magazine Award. Her story collection Pilgrims was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award;The Last American Man was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The follow-up memoir Committed became an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Her latest novel, The Signature of All Things, was named a Best Book of 2013 by The New York Times, O Magazine, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and The New Yorker. Gilbert’s short fiction has appeared in Esquire, Story, One Story, and the Paris Review.
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This is why I was surprised down to my socks when I gobbled the first 300 pages of this book down like a giant bucket of popcorn at the movies. I couldn't believe this book had been penned by the same author as Eat, Love, Pray. The writing was robust, the characters were compelling, the storyline riveting and most of all, there was a historical and educational richness that made you feel like you were getting smarter and smarter with every page you turned. In this way, Gilbert's novel reminded me of the historical fiction by authors James Michener and Leon Uris. I had even started imagining my critique to my reading group that would include such accolades as "one of my favorite books of all time."
Not so fast. Around page 300 I hit the skids with this book and hit them big. The reading went from sailing through chapter after chapter with the wind at my back on a sea of glass, to slogging my way through each page as if I were hip deep in a muddy bog with three bags of groceries in my arms. My sense is that Gilbert ran out of steam. In some ways, the story deflated slowly, as with the fortunes and foibles of some of the main characters, but mostly, there was a sudden shift in tone, storyline, and even the style of writing. I swear it seemed like a different person took over the writing of the last 200 pages. The longer that this workman-like writing and irksome plot continued, the angrier I got that the author had taken me to the celestial heights of reading pleasure, only to drop me to the dark depths of reading despair. Okay, that was a little dramatic, but you get my point. I wish Ms. Gilbert's editors had applied as firm a hand to the end of the book, as they did at the beginning.
Now, once and for all, I am done with Elizabeth Gilbert (unless, of course, she shows up on my doorstep and politely asks me to read her next book and then I certainly will.) :-)
Final note: almost everyone else in my reading group felt the same way I did. There were a couple of people who didn't like the book from the start, but for those who did, their feelings had changed drastically by the end.
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.