In "The Signature of All Things, " Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Read more...
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In "The Signature of All Things, " Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker--a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction--into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist--but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, "The Signature of All Things" soars across the globe--from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who--born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution--bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page .
- Review Date: 2013-07-01
- Reviewer: Staff
After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has returned to fiction, and clearly she’s reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. The Signature of All Things is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution. The story begins with Henry Whittaker, at first poor on the fringes of England’s Kew Gardens, but in the end the richest man in Philadelphia. In more detail, the story follows Henry’s daughter, Alma. Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma’s case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn’t cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form. Agent: Sarah Chalfant, the Wylie Agency. (Oct. 1)
Gilbert returns to fiction with an epic of naturalism
Before Eat, Pray, Love was an international sensation and a Julia Roberts flick; before Committed was a number-one bestseller; before she was a household name (at least in the literary world), Elizabeth Gilbert was a respected novelist and journalist. Now, it’s next to impossible to discuss her work without mentioning the acclaim that has followed.
But with The Signature of All Things, it’s easy to forget the persona behind the work and focus on a compelling story, impeccably told—which is just what Gilbert has written all along. Curiosity and name recognition may lead many to pick up this novel, but it’s Gilbert’s engaging, thoroughly researched prose that will carry readers through the 500-plus pages of this sprawling story, which covers a century and much of the globe, including Amsterdam, London, Tahiti and Peru.
Henry Whittaker isn’t born with much, save for wits. But the wily botanist applies those smarts to develop a business and relationships that make him one of the wealthiest men in his adopted home of Philadelphia. So when his daughter Alma comes along in 1800, she inherits her parents’ brains, her father’s love for botany and all the advantages he never knew.
The family wealth allows Alma the freedom to indulge her curiosity about the natural world without worrying about translating that interest to profit—or about settling into marriage. Alma becomes enthralled by botany—in particular bryology, the study of moss.
“Mosses hold their beauty in elegant reserve. By comparison to mosses, everything else in the botanical world can seem so blunt and obvious,” Alma says by way of explaining her fascination. Those words could just as easily be used to describe Gilbert’s unconventional heroine; Alma is so cerebral that her gifts are rarely apparent to the untrained eye, and she struggles to connect with anyone besides her parents.
In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert turns her finely trained storytelling skills toward the whole of Alma’s life, examining the history, quirks and quiet moments that make up a person’s being, even as she traces the trajectory of a century and examines larger themes, like faith vs. science. The attention to detail and imagination Gilbert exhibits in this old-fashioned epic prove that her acclaim is truly deserved.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Elizabeth Gilbert for The Signature of All Things.