“For the first five years of her life, Alma Whittaker was indeed a mere passenger of the world–as we are all passengers in such early youth–and so her story was not yet noble, nor was it particularly interesting, beyond the fact that this homely toddler passed her days without illness or incident, surrounded by a degree of wealth nearly unknown in the America of that time…” Elizabeth Gilbert, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS
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.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is 500 pages and, because I was enthralled by Alma Whittaker and her indomitable spirit of exploration, I read it in five nights.
It is a rare thing for an author to create such a cast of dynamic and unique characters as Gilbert has done in this novel. I adored Alma’s crotchety father, her sturdy mother, her feisty nursemaid, prim sister, wild friend, endearing love, eccentric guide, and even the mongrel, Roger, who bites Alma when she tries to feed him–and that is just a sampling of who one meets on the pages. The novel is rendered in a narrative voice full of cheekiness and authority, and the vast wealth of knowledge contained in its pages is extraordinary.
Not since Steinbeck’s EAST OF EDEN has an epic family saga of this magnitude so completely captivated and fascinated me. Bold, detailed, and dense as a Tahitian jungle, yet somehow far more accessible, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a masterpiece. Unless you are a lady who sips tea with her pinky finger in the air, you simply must read THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.