The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Published by Bloomsbury
3rd July 2014
5 January 1800
At the beginning of a new century, 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's Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook's HMS Resolution. Alma's mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, has a knowledge of botany equal to any man's.
It is not long before Alma, an independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, comes into her own within the world of plants and science. But as her careful studies of moss taker her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction - into the realm of the spiritual, the divine and the magical. She is a clear-minded scientist; he is a Utopian artist. But the shared passion that unites this couple is a desperate desire to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all of life.
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 - about all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.
I must admit, I never, ever thought I would be so interested in a book about plants before. Elizabeth Gilbert has made me love it, and the history of moss is too, too fascinating; I kid you not.
The Signature of All Things is a big book, almost 600 pages in length but it flows so well that reading it is nothing like a struggle. I adored the history of the plants and species that Henry Whittaker brings to England in the 1800s and of the work that Alma eventually continues. It is also a love story, and a tale of relationships, both good and bad, but the actual botany element of the book really drew me in, to the extent that I purchased this book only the other day!
Elizabeth Gilbert has written a beautiful, in-depth novel that deserves to be savoured and read slowly, to enjoy every sentence on the page. I loved it, for it is so much more than 'just fiction'.