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The Signature of All Things’ Back-of-Book Description
Love, adventure, and discovery are at the heart of The Signature of All Things. 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 story 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.
OK, I think it’s safe to say that most readers (and even people who don’t read that much) know who Elizabeth Gilbert is because of Eat, Pray, Love. I for one, never read that book. But I LOVED the movie. And I’ve heard her speak on podcasts and stuff. So when I saw that she wrote a fiction novel I figured it had to be good, right?
I was correct.
The Signature of All Things starts out with a prologue – I know people have differing opinions of prologues, but I always read them. And this one was really good. It gives you a taste of the writing and who the most important character is going to be. Which is good, because then the first few real chapters are all about the father, Henry. I’m really glad the author gave us his whole story because it was really interesting to read about the kind of experiences he had.
Henry’s story takes place in the late 1700s and then the daughter’s story moves through the early 1800s. The writing reflects the time period and I personally thought it was fun to read in that sort of poetic language. It was also a little time consuming since I had to pause to look up a bunch of words!
There was a good deal of science mixed in with storytelling, as Henry and Alma are both interested in botany. There is also a fair amount of philosophical talk, as well, which I really enjoyed.
As far as characters and scene setting goes, I was pleased on both accounts.
I found all the characters to be well developed and interesting in their own right. Even the ones we don’t get as much background info on, have enough dialogue and stuff that the reader is really able to connect with them. And the setting descriptions are incredible! You can easily picture the locations being described and imagine that you’re there with them.
I will say, though, that there is a bit of an awkward moment or two in the book. It discusses a coming-of-age situation which is seldom (if ever) written about in novels. While this was at first really shocking, I think it was also a little refreshing in how honest it was. I don’t want to give too much away, just be warned… it’s personal and slightly uncomfortable.
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Favorite Quotes From the Book
“At no moment in history has a bright young girl with plenty of food and a good constitution perished from too much learning.”
“Nothing is so essential as dignity, girls. Time will reveal who has it, and who has it not.”
“They were all so young, and the sky was blue, and love had not yet grievously injured any of them.”
“All transformation appears to be motivated by desperation and emergency.”
“She felt simultaneously relieved and burdened: relieved of all her old questions; burdened by the answers.”
I think overall I would give The Signature of All Things 4 out of 5 stars. It’s definitely a long story, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. But I did enjoy it and I’m really glad I read it.
I think it would be great for people interested in plants and science, while also liking memoirs and historical fiction.
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