Book Review: The Signature Of All Things

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Many thanks to Viking, of Penguin Group, for sending an absolutely gorgeous copy of Elizabeth Gilbert’s new novel The Signature of All Things.  (Truly – this is such a lovely hardcover that it can easily sit on one’s living room table.  With its rough paper edges and the botanical artwork throughout, it’s a beautiful addition to anyone’s home library.)

Sorry – I digress.  We Hoarders swoon over pretty books.

Before I review The Signature of All Things, I have to confess that I did not read Gilbert’s first novel Eat, Pray, Love.  I also had no interest in ever picking it up.  The premise of that book did not appeal to me, as it smacked of something syrupy and self indulgent.  That would not be my cup of tea. After hearing the reviews (good and bad) about Eat, Pray, Love, I hesitated before picking up The Signature of All Things.  Let me say now that I am a firm believer in this author’s talent, as this novel was anything but saccharin sweet.  I proclaimed in my Hoarder bio that I love a smart read that spans generations, and this hits both marks.  At no time did I feel as though I was reading some self-help novel that was bent on providing spiritual guidance.  I simply became immersed in the world of the brilliant Alma Whittaker.

The Signature of All Things spans a great deal of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, including the entire lifespan of protagonist Alma Whittaker. Beginning with Alma’s father Henry Whittaker, the book deftly covers the trials, tribulations and eventual success of his life.  His story alone was a fascinating one, as he studiously and steadily climbed out of the shackles of extremely humble beginnings.  Born a very poor Englishman, Henry’s determination and wit helped him to become the richest man in Philadelphia thanks to the fortune he made in the South American quinine trade.  Plants were Henry’s passion, and once he had a daughter of his own, it was no surprise that he raised her to have the same unquenchable thirst for knowledge.   I knew from the moment I met Alma that I was going to like her very much.  Any character with that much spirit and hunger for learning is worth a reader’s time.  What I didn’t expect was how invested I would become in her story, including those portions that could only be described as quirky.  

Being raised in a strict academic household (both parents served to enhance her education at every turn), it was no wonder that Alma would become a scholar.  What eluded her, however, among the books and lengthy dinner table conversations with renowned thinkers, was true love.  Passion was only to be directed at her studies, and even when her parents adopted a poor girl from one of the families that lived on their land, Alma was terribly unsure of how to relate.   It was difficult not to feel pity for her, as it seemed on more than one occasion that a smart mind was the highest priority, rather than nurturing close relationships.  While Alma adored her parents (especially her father) and respected her new sister, you just knew that heartbreak was on the horizon.  Alma falls in love with a family friend, but as expected, it is not meant to be.  While Alma’s sister Prudence was breathtakingly stunning with her golden hair and petite features, Alma was the opposite.  This made courtships somewhat challenging during that time.

He was an odd choice to love.  Nobody would ever have accused George of being a handsome man, but in Alma’s eyes, he was exemplary.  She felt somehow that they made a nice pair, perhaps even an obvious pair.  There was no question that George was overly large, pale, awkward, and clumsy – but so was Alma.  (p. 109)

 Throughout Alma’s life, her need to learn was at times eclipsed by her need to be loved.  It was the only time she was at a loss.  Studying and discovering came easily for Alma, but affairs of the heart were consistently elusive.  What I appreciated about this character more than anything was the unflinching honestly with which she was written.  Few could challenge her wit, but love would leave her stymied.  I was rooting for her, but at the same time, was apprehensive for her to settle down.  

She grew in importance in both the botanical and business circles, and began publishing books on mosses.  When she fell in love again, and married this time, I winced slightly, and hoped that she had found a mate that was a good match.  Alas, this too fell apart, and while I do not want to reveal too much about this relationship, Alma’s love of Ambrose Pike was the thread that stitched together the remainder of her life.  It shaped her, guided her, and helped her to see more of the world than just her family’s sprawling estate.  I loved that she “got out,” and met new people.  Each, by the way, was more fascinating than the last. I have to commend Elizabeth Gilbert for filling the pages of this novel with phenomenal people. Every one of them had enough backstory and heart to carry separate novels on their own.  From Alma’s sister Prudence (you’ll adore her, despite her stoic ways), to the wonderful Reverend Welles, you’ll have your pick of characters that are ready to challenge your thinking, and ultimately steal your heart.

Overall, I must confess that I was a little disappointed by the time I reached the novel’s end.  This was not because the story took a poor turn, but rather because I knew that I was going to miss the depth of Gilbert’s characters.  If you love family sagas, and can appreciate a smart (albeit naive) protagonist, then I suggest that you pick up a copy of The Signature of All Things. While there will be more than a few odd moments in the book that may make you slightly uncomfortable (never underestimate the power of a character’s curiosities), I dare say that you will appreciate Alma Whittaker just as much as I did. Enjoy!  4 stars.

Literary Hoarders Elizabeth