Summary from Goodreads: 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.
I read The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert in a week. That’s right, in 7 days. For old, pre-motherhood me – this would be no surprise. For me now? An absolute and utter reading feat! I borrowed it from my public library for that length of time because it is a new release – and, so I took the plunge and read.
This is my first Gilbert fiction read. I devoured Eat, Pray, Love (even sat through the movie…meh) and that is why I decided to try Gilbert’s return to fiction.
Immediate reaction? It’s o-kay. Not bad. Interesting.
More thoughtful response? (Alert! There are a few, small spoilers…)
Gilbert is fantastic at creating characters. From the stoic, determined Henry Whittaker to his equally stoic, bordering on robotic wife. These two show disdain for any kind of emotional response, ever, to any situation. Emotions make one weak. Intelligence, rational thinking and reason are prized above all else – and they pass this along to their daughters, Alma and Prudence.
One of my favourite pieces of advice that Alma receives from both of her parents is never to explain herself for it makes her appear weak. Strength is valued, controlling emotions is valued – these are the traits that will ensure success and self-preservation. As in the natural world as well – this fact was not lost on this reader.
All of the characters in this novel are finely developed. Their love of science, people, understanding, exploration is refreshing. Always underlying every interaction, issue and development is the need to understand why and how.
When I read the summary I assumed that the love between Ambrose Pike and Alma Whittaker would be far more earth-shattering, if you will. The romantic in me was disappointed. I wished for Alma to be more affected, perhaps more radically changed – more spiritually challenged. I wished for Alma to have the most incredible sex of her life! There were so many things I wished for her and perhaps when they weren’t happening that’s when I felt let down and like I couldn’t keep reading.
This book was about 500 pages long and I was right there with the characters and plot until about page 390. Alma goes to Tahiti in search of Ambrose and what it was he wanted, what it was he believed in. I just couldn’t understand why. I stopped caring. I could not care less about any character or event than I did the 100 pages or so that Alma was in Tahiti. I didn’t care about the Reverend, or Tomorrow Morning, or the village, or the kids, or the women, or Alma’s experiences. I couldn’t get away from Tahiti fast enough.
And, then it just became a race to the end so I could return the book in the time frame allowed for new releases. I must admit that I skimmed the last 100 pages.
Overall, this is an incredible story of how one very poor boy became a prince through science and pharmacology. It’s crazy to see the sinister beginnings of how pharmaceutical companies profit from illness. It is also a fascinating story about science and women’s contribution to the natural sciences. It is so thoroughly researched that the reader feels like she is truly experiencing moments in history when scientific discovery was changing the way people lived. It is also the story of a brilliant woman who reasons, who believes in fact and investigation and ends up sacrificing so much of her womanhood because of it.
Is it a sacrifice? Is sexual, sensual, emotional, passionate expression/understanding a necessary part of being a woman? I always thought so and have related to characters who think so/do so too. Perhaps this is why I found Alma so challenging. Alma is all mind and tries to reason her heart…when she gives into her heart she ends up being burned. Badly. And, then becomes obsessed with discovering why and how she was burned. I admired Alma, but found it very difficult to relate to her.
Would I recommend this book? Yes. Why? Because Elizabeth Gilbert writes beautifully. Her characters are flawless and her plot (regardless of how I reacted to it) is pretty tight. And, it’s a pretty fascinating subject too.
I just wish Alma had had great sex…I’m sure it would’ve changed everything 🙂