All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

on August 9, 2019

The Signature Of All Things
Elizabeth Gilbert
Bloomsbury ANZ
2013, 501p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

5th January 1800. 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’ Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook’s HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones). An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.

The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London to Tasmania, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters – missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad – most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.

This is another book that has been on my TBR shelf for years now. I received a copy in the mail from the publisher waaayyyy back in 2013 and I never got around to reading it. I haven’t read Elizabeth Gilbert before although she is well known for things like Eat Pray Love and other self-help style memoirs which are just not really my thing. This had some good reviews from people I trust but I just didn’t get around to it. However it seemed perfect for a number of prompts for the Reading Women Podcast Challenge and it was something that was easily accessible as it was on my shelf.

This was a great introduction to Gilbert for me, because this is such an engaging book from the very first page. It details the life of Alma Whittaker, daughter of a very wealthy man and his pragmatic and intelligent Dutch wife. It details how her father made his fortune and then how he and his wife raised their daughter, in a most unusual way. Alma was incredibly well educated and encouraged from a very early age to display her intelligence in fact, she was expected to. She was allowed sit at the dinner table when her parents entertained and was expected to be able to make scientific opinions and also argue them with conviction and accuracy. Alma’s thirst for knowledge is almost insatiable and she’s intrigued by the world of botany, which is how her father made his fortune and how it continues to flourish. Despite her intelligence and her father’s wealth and perhaps because of her unusual upbringing, she receives no interest from men and seems destined to live out her days in the family home, conducting her research and aiding her father as he grows more dependent in his older years. It details her strange and troubled relationship with her adopted sister and how that complicates as they grow older, rather than simplifying. And when she falls in love and believes that happiness might finally be within her grasp, she’ll go to the other side of the world to find the answers she needs for peace.

This was such a great book. It’s pretty hefty, about 500p and but it’s the sort of book where you don’t notice its length because the story it’s telling is so rich and engaging and Alma becomes such a strong and wonderful character that her life is a source of fascination, especially for the time. The Whittaker family have money when they establish themselves in Philadelphia, but their eccentricities mean that they are never quite accepted by the elite of society, which probably suits them anyway as they prefer their social occasions full of intelligent and engaging debate, scientific breakthroughs and theories. Alma’s mother is rigorous in her criticism and faint with her praise and Alma and her adopted sister seem to be always looking to avoid her critical eye.

The book is rich with biological detail, from Alma’s father Henry’s early days exploring to his development of his new home, to her own travels and scientific research. It comes at a time where exploration of the world was very popular, as was recording scientific and biological finds and for the most part, taking samples back to places like Britain in order to cultivate them. Or to make money from them. A bit of the book is devoted to Henry’s perceived rivalry with Sir Joseph Banks a noted explorer and in latter parts, Alma’s own scientific observations and study of mosses lead her to theories on evolution and change. She has the opportunity to travel to a place completely the opposite of where she has been brought up, a place that’s under attempt from missionaries to convert the indigenous population to Christianity. The book doesn’t address the moral implications of these actions or look at them as right or wrong, given the time of the book but it does give the reader a chance to reflect on the commonality of this sort of thing at the time, in all parts of the world, the zeal with which some people sought to undertake this task.

This book spans about a century of really interesting exploration and story telling. There’s such a lot of research that must’ve gone into writing it, the sorts of plants and flowers in different parts of the world that were being noticed and harvested and transported around the world, the ways in which this must be done. I felt really connected to Alma as a character even though we have little in common. There’s something about the way in which her upbringing gave her all the opportunities in the world to excel academically and to satisfy that part of her that wanted to know things but didn’t provide particularly much in the way of personal growth – and what it did provide, Alma wasn’t really in the position to recognise it and embrace it. Her journey is such an interesting one and even though she was born wealthy and privileged with a family that valued education more than anything, she still suffers disappointments. It’s what she does with these I think, that made me so fond of her.

I really loved this, it was just such a wonderful read. And if Elizabeth Gilbert were to write some more fiction, especially historical, I will definitely read it.


Book #120 of 2019

I’m counting this towards my Reading Women Podcast Challenge for 2019 ticking off prompt #19 – About nature. I think this book definitely qualifies. It’s the 12th book I’ve completed for the challenge and I feel like I’m starting to pick up some momentum now.

6 responses to “Review: The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. I’m so glad you liked this! Your review makes me want to read it all over again.
    Maybe we should buddy read City of Girls together? Just a low key one with the two of us like last time.

  2. I almost didn’t read this because I hated Eat Pray Love so much, but I thought it was very good, I think I gave it four stars from memory.

  3. Marg says:

    I was never interested in Eat Pray Love at all, but I read this one and LOVED it. I do need to think about reading City of Girls

  4. […] About nature – The Signature Of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. My review. […]

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