Elizabeth Gilbert’s epic The Signature of All Things celebrates history’s inquiring minds and the unwavering strength, willpower and quiet sacrifice women have made in society across all vocations.
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 deckhand 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.
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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. I found the narrative style — the storyteller conversing directly with his audience — really appealing.
How her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again. For it was no more common in 1800 than it has ever been for a poor-born and nearly illiterate man to become the richest inhabitant of his city, and so the means by which Henry Whittaker prospered are indeed interesting – although perhaps not noble, as he himself would have been the first to confess.
Beautifully realised characters
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 is a celebration
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.
Nothing is so essential as dignity…Time will reveal who has it and who has it not.
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 Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.
BOOK RATING: The Story 4.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4.5 / 5
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Genre: Historical, Literature, Romance, Drama, Mystery, Adventure
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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.
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* My receiving a copy of this book from Bloomsbury did not impact my ability to express my honest opinions on this title.