Title: The Signature of All Things
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Release Date: October 1, 2013
Genre: Literary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Henry Whitaker came from nothing, but with his love of and knowledge of botany, he made a fortune for himself in 18th century Europe before settling in the United States as the richest man in Philadelphia. His daughter Alma, born in 1800, inherits her father’s perspicacity and love of plants as she makes her way through life, constrained by being a woman in the 19th century.
A gorgeous novel with amazing breadth, The Signature of All Things is a character-driven novel with the amazing Alma at its center. Though it’s long, it is absolutely a book that will keep you entertained from beginning to end.
I’ll admit it. When The Signature of All Things was released, I had very little interest in it because of the author, Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame. I wasn’t a huge fan of that book and didn’t really care to read any more of her books. But as buzz built for the novel, I realized that Gilbert’s fiction might be worth a try. And I have to say, I was completely, utterly, and horribly wrong about this book—it’s an absolutely amazing novel and I only wish I’d read it sooner.
The Signature of All Things follows the Whitaker family’s fortune, but it’s Alma who is at the center of this luminous novel. She’s a quite plain girl (and turns into a plain woman) but her mind is incredibly sharp. The reader comes to know Alma intimately over the course of the novel; she becomes a living, breathing person, a friend and confidante. Readers who enjoy character-driven novels will be completely shocked at how emotionally swept away they are by this book. The characters, both major and minor, are, quite simply, brilliant.
The novel is enhanced by all the notes, thoughts, and musings about botany, which give it an added depth. Indeed, this novel is so sweeping, spanning both the 18th and 19th centuries, from Philadelphia to the Netherlands to Tahiti, that it’s hard to review. There’s just so much that happens that any review seems woefully inadequate and incomplete without discussing pivotal events that occur later in the novel, which of course I don’t do because I firmly believe it’s best to go into any book knowing as little as possible. Therefore, I know it seems like I haven’t said much of anything about The Signature of All Things, but there’s not much more I can say.
This is a book that, above all, will really make you feel. You’ll become invested in Alma and the other characters; you’ll feel her pain at being alone; you’ll feel her love for her mosses and her bewilderment at her sister. I can’t describe enough how much Gilbert emotionally involves the reader in the story, drawing them in and making sure their attention won’t wander for a second. And that’s a huge feat, considering that The Signature of All Things is over 500 pages. Usually, long books are difficult with my short attention span, but this novel kept me absolutely riveted for every second I spent with it. Never have I been more happy to have my preconceptions proven completely and utterly wrong.