The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Alma Whittaker, heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, learns, loves, suffers, and thrives in the course of her long life, which forms the essence of this novel.

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Gilbert, as you may remember, authored the wildly successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006) and the tedious memoir Committed (2010). Signature is historical fiction and, for me, far more engrossing than these nonfiction books.

The story begins with Alma’s birth in January 1800 at the dawn of America’s Industrial Revolution. Her father is English—an international botanizer and cunning businessman who rises from illiteracy to become the richest man in Philadelphia; her smart pragmatic mother grows up in a learned Dutch family that had managed a botanical garden for generations. The sheltered Alma devotes herself to studying mosses growing in moist spots near her home. Around Alma and her family orbit a group of eccentric secondary characters, especially Ambrose Pike, a spiritualist and illustrator of orchids who becomes Alma’s husband. After Pike enters the novel, the plot takes bizarre twists, leading the intellectual protagonist out of her confined life to Tahiti, Amsterdam, and the discovery of a Darwin-like theory of evolution.

Gilbert’s historical and botanical research is impressive but at times overwhelms the book’s forward movement. The Signature of All Things is no beach read but a detailed look into a dynamic period of history through the powerful scientific mind of its heroine.

(Viking Adult, 2013)