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The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Read in January 2014

5 of 5 stars

The jacket blurb describes The Signature of All Things as sweeping, and it is certainly that and much more. Elizabeth Gilbert’s story follows Alma Whittaker from her birth in 1800 into her old age. Alma is the daughter of Henry Whittaker, who from humble beginnings in 18th-century London builds a vast corporate empire stretching across several continents by importing and exporting exotic and rare flora. Henry is a pragmatist who has no use for superstition or religion and nothing but scorn for established and polite ways of conducting business. An expert amateur botanist, he has a scientist's fascination for living things and is knowledgeable of habitat and what it takes to make plants grow and thrive. However, coming from a hardscrabble upbringing and having endured for years the contempt of his “betters,” his primary interest is making money, and this is an activity at which he excels, ruthlessly and to the exclusion of almost everything else, and which he does so well that after settling in Philadelphia he becomes the wealthiest man in the New World. Alma, born into comfort and knowing nothing else, gains her maturity at the enlightened Whittaker estate, where curiosity and skepticism are encouraged, surrounded by the stimulating influence of the books her father has collected and the almost nightly company of intelligent dinner guests. Alma shares her father's fascination for the natural world, but with her keen intellect, the luxury of leisure time (if not the benefit of formal education), and a single-minded devotion to her quest for knowledge, she transforms her scientific inquisitiveness into scholarly ambition. Alma’s life unfolds against a backdrop of continuous scientific discovery, religious upheaval, and the occasional war, a time when ancient and sacred assumptions were being debunked on an almost daily basis. But apart from the historical details Gilbert devotes just as much if not more space to Alma’s personal discoveries, and this is what gives the novel its soul. In this engrossing story of an inquisitive and deeply intellectual woman alive at a time when women were expected to keep to the shadows and speak in undertones, we see Alma Whittaker at her best and also at her very worst. Alma is, above all else a seeker of answers who will let nothing interrupt her quest; she knows she can contribute to humanity’s storehouse of knowledge and is not about to let her gender hold her back. To be sure she makes bad decisions and repeatedly displays poor judgment (especially in matters of the heart), but this only makes her a more endearing character and her story all the more poignant. What greater compliment is there than to say that though this is a long book I didn’t want it to end? Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of all Things engages and fascinates on multiple levels. It is above all else a richly satisfying reading experience.