Unlike most of the world I’ve never read Elizabeth Gilbert.  Eat, Pray, Love didn’t appeal so I had nothing to compare THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS to. Have any of you read her?  Thoughts? Here are mine on THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is the sweeping saga of Alama Whittaker’s life.  From her unconventional childhood and education to her travels, Alma was ever a seeker of truth and knowledge.

Alma’s story begins with her father, Henry, also a seeker. Henry sought wealth and found it.  While working with his father, the Apple Magus, in Kew Gardens Henry sees an opportunity for profit.  Sir Joseph Banks, director of Kew’s vast depository of rare exotic plants is also a botanical hoarder.  For a fee, Henry steals cuttings and other things for other botanists, a risky but lucrative endeavor.  After his thievery is revealed Sir Joseph Banks opts to send Henry on Capt. Cook’s final West Indies expedition instead of the gallows.  Upon his return Henry is then sent to the Peruvian Andes.  After the death of the lead botanist en route, Henry heads the expedition and learns all there is to know about the varieties and cultivation of cinchona. Working with the Dutch, a people Henry admires, using samples, seedlings, cuttings, and knowledge acquired during years in Peru, Henry builds his empire on the medicinal cinchona.  Henry even takes a Dutch woman, Beatrix van Devender, as wife.

Beatrix’s family were, for generations, the custodians of The Hortus, a premier research garden in Amsterdam linking botany, scholarship, and trade. Beatrix had a formidable education with expertise in botany, fluency in seven languages, including two dead languages. Some might even have considered her overeducated, but not Henry. Beatrix was exactly what he desired in a wife.

Her father, Jacob, didn’t reciprocate Henry’s high regard.  Jacob was aware of Henry’s history and didn’t like what he knew. Nor was Henry handsome or refined but Beatrix liked what she saw.

“The man has no principles,” Jacob van Devender objected to his daughter.

“Oh, Father, you are most grievously mistaken,” Beatrix corrected him dryly. “Mr. Whittaker has many principles. Just not the best variety of them.”   

In Henry, Beatrix saw her future and defied her family to marry him.

These were the parents of Alma who passed along their brilliance, practicality, and audacity. By Alma’s birth in 1800 Henry was one of the three riches men in the western hemisphere.  Unfortunately, Henry also passed along his looks to his only natural born daughter.

Ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose.

What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary, she was—tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn.  From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest. If her millstone of a mother hand not steadfastly ground the impudence out of her, she might have turned out to be frankly rude. As it was, she was merely forceful.  

In the wee hours of November 1809 Alma’s life changed with the adoption of Prudence. Prudence is frighteningly beautiful and Alma discovers she isn’t. Prudence is afforded the same education as Alma. Her earlier years lacked what Beatrix considered a proper education so Prudence has much to learn and she does. Prudence is stoic with an expressionless face making it impossible to read her. She rarely speaks and when she does it’s with strict economy.  I’m still ambiguous about Prudence and her role.

One winter’s day, when the girls were about fifteen years old, an old friend of Henry’s from the Calcutta Botanical Gardens came to visit White Acre after many years away. Standing in the entryway, still shaking the snow off his cloak, the guest shouted, “Henry Whittaker, you weasel! Show me that famous daughter of yours I’ve been hearing so much about!”

The girls were just nearby, transcribing botanical notes in the drawing room. They could hear every word.

Henry, in his great crashing voice, said, “Alma! Come instantly! You are requested to be seen!”

Alma rushed into the atrium, bright with expectation. The stranger looked at her for a moment, then burst out laughing. He said, “No, you bloody fool-that’s not what I meant! I want to see the pretty one!”

Without a trace of rebuke, Henry replied, “Oh, so you’re interested in Our Little Exquisite, then? Prudence, come in here! You are requested to be seen!”

Prudence slipped through the entryway and stood beside Alma, whose feet were now sinking into the floor, as into a thick and terrible swamp.

“There we are!” said the guest, looking over Prudence a though pricing her out. “Oh, she is splendid, isn’t she? I had wondred. I had suspected everyone might have been exaggerating.”

Henry waved his hand dismissively, “Ah, you all make too much of Prudence,” he said. “To my mind, the homely one is worth ten of the pretty one.”

So, you see, it is quite possible that both girls suffered equally. 

While the story focuses on Alma, her parents, early life, classical education, and the family’s unorthodox dinner parties, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS shines.  The vibrant characterization begins and ends with them. The secondary characters are mere foils and jumping-off points for Alma.  Prudence, Retta, George, Ambrose and other characters are poorly served. Instead of adding nuance and layers, their lack of real development make later events and “sacrifices” hard to swallow.  It was difficult to reconcile their actions with the two dimensional characters portrayed, actions the reader never witnesses but is simply told occurred.  Therefore, much of the story suffers from an inability to quite believe in it.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS could have stood a bit of pruning.  Tahiti was tedious. Alma is searching for a truth she already knows. I was incredulous when, faced with an opportunity to discover, explore, and learn about an integral part of life that had passed her by, she would choose to experience so little. This wasn’t the Alma I knew; the Alma who wanted to learn, discover, and know as much as possible. For me, Alma’s time on Tahiti came across as masochistic, unbelievable, and a waste of my time and hers.

The latter part of THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS returns Alma and the reader to its strong suit: knowledge and its pursuit.

Instead of Alma’s story ending with the restless dissatisfaction that marked the Tahiti section, this return allowed me to finish Alma’s quest on a satisfied note, entirely pleased with how her journey ends.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS isn’t for everyone but it’s certainly different.  This alone is enough to commend it to readers looking for something out of the norm.

3.5 stars

signature of all things

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