She begins life as a baby with “a face like a bowl of porridge . . . pale as a painted floor” (p. 2). She is to end it as a biologist of unique accomplishments, mentioned in the same breath with the great evolutionists Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin. In the more than eighty years in between, she will know extraordinary wealth and almost total deprivation. She will experience the heights of passion and the utter depths of loneliness. She will very nearly circle the globe in search of answers, both to scientific mysteries and to the inexplicable riddles of the human heart. She is Alma Whittaker, the heroine of Elizabeth Gilbert’s panoramic novelThe Signature of All Things, and she is one of the most memorable creations in the current generation of American fiction.
Alma is the only biological daughter of Henry Whittaker, an Englishman who has used every means within his grasp to rise from poverty to wrestle wealth from a scornful and resistant world. The ticket to Henry’s success has been an almost instinctive knowledge of plants, passed down to him by his own father, a master horticulturist at the court of King George III. Unlike his threadbare father, Henry has learned how to make plants pay; he comes to dominate the market for the trees used to produce quinine and becomes the wealthiest man in his adopted home of Philadelphia. Alma inherits her father’s fascination with botany, as well as his love of argument and confrontation, but she also has what he does not have: an unquenchable sense of wonder and a zeal for knowledge that is driven not by the love of profit, but by the love of life and all that makes it function. Lonely and misunderstood, but also brilliant and intensely curious, Alma studies the humblest forms of plant life, unwittingly embarking on a path of inquiry that will lead her to the darkest mysteries of evolutionary theory. On the way, she falls in love with Ambrose Pike, a uniquely gifted artist whose airy idealism and spiritual light attract her like a moth to a flame. Body clashes with spirit and science intertwines with religion as the two unlikely lovers journey, together and apart, toward their strange and improbable destinies.
Brilliantly researched and lovingly crafted by the internationally renowned author of Eat, Pray, Love, The Signature of All Things carries the reader breathlessly across the globe. The novel also covers equally vast spaces in human consciousness, ranging from the coolly rational to the pitiably insane. It is a work of extraordinary faith and of deep scientific reflection. Perhaps above all, it is the story of an irrepressible woman, determined to satisfy her most powerful urges toward both love and knowledge. A novel immersed in all the great questions of the nineteenth century, The Signature of All Things is also very much a novel for our times-and for all time.
My review for THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS will be posted end of the month. If any of y’all have read or plan to read TSoaT it would be great to get a discussion going & hear your thoughts. 🙂
Born in Waterbury, Connecticut, Elizabeth Gilbert grew up on a family Christmas-tree farm and went on to study political science at New York University. Her first book, a short-story collection titledPilgrims, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Award. Her first novel, Stern Men, was named a New York Times Notable Book. Her first nonfiction book, The Last American Man, was a finalist for both the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Gilbert achieved superstardom with her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold more than ten million copies. Her follow-up memoir, Committed, also topped the New York Times bestseller list. Gilbert lives in Frenchtown, New Jersey.