A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed
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.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
We were captivated by this grand historical novel. Elizabeth Gilbert—best known for her autobiographical Eat, Pray, Love—takes us on a different kind of journey here. Beginning with the birth of a baby girl in Philadelphia in 1800, The Signature of All Things sweeps us from London to Peru, Tahiti, and Amsterdam. Gilbert paints each place in rich detail and explores big ideas about science and curiosity. Alma is an extraordinary, brilliant, and flawed heroine, who yearns for experiences beyond family and duty and loves passionately and tragically. We didn’t want to leave her side for a moment.
After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has returned to fiction, and clearly she's reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. The Signature of All Things is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution. The story begins with Henry Whittaker, at first poor on the fringes of England's Kew Gardens, but in the end the richest man in Philadelphia. In more detail, the story follows Henry's daughter, Alma. Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma's case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn't cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form.
Customer ReviewsSee All
Enjoyable read, great characters
If you like well developed characters you’ll like this book. The relationships between the characters are wonderfully developed too. I also really enjoyed getting a glimpse into the development of science and botany over the course of the 19th century and I thought the details of Henry Whittaker’s journey from botany to pharmaceuticals was fascinating.
My favorite part of the book would have to be the thing that bothered Alma the most: if kindness serves no evolutionary function why do we show it?
It’s a good read. It slows towards the middle but picks back up for a good ending.
Amazing story, beautifully told
This story was fascinating, and incredibly well written. Elizabeth Gilbert knows how to use language. It is a romance, a generational saga, a travelogue, a history, and a scientific treatise—a masterpiece of fiction.
Dry and endless
Needs heavy editing ... and a plot.