The Signature of All Things

Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things
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The Signature of All Things

Elizabeth Gilbert

A captivating story of botany, exploration and desire, by the multimillion bestselling author of Eat Pray Love.

Everything about life intrigues Alma Whittaker. Her passion for botany leads her far from home, from London to Peru to Tahiti, in pursuit of that rare specimen: knowledge. But as her careful studies draw her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she meets the man who she will come to love - whose perspective, radically different from her own, will transform the way she understands the world.

Radiating with all the heart, soul and earthiness as its unforgettable heroine, The Signature of All Things is a captivating celebration of the workings of this world, and the mechanisms behind all life.     

Review

The Signature of All Things is a sprawling story of botany, nineteenth-century scientific development, herbariums, sea voyages, love, death, old books and abolitionists. The protagonist is Alma Whittaker, born in 1800 and daughter of the world’s richest botanical importer; she’s a child genius who dedicates her life to plants. We grow up with Alma, experience her childhood, education, sexual awakening, first love, sailing trips, suffering and joy.

The book is a type of coming-of-age story, but the bulk of the narrative takes place while Alma is in her fifties. Elizabeth Gilbert foregrounds the interests, passions and heartbreak of a woman in her middle-age, unlike so many stories which position certain events, like a characters’ first love and the negotiation of sex, as achievements to be completed early in life. The story is therefore refreshing and feels highly particular – almost like a biography.

The Signature of All Things is meticulously researched, which adds to the sense of reality. Real-life characters like Captain Cook and Joseph Banks populate the text, and the story is loaded with detail of plant life and botany, evolutionary theories, ancient texts, languages and printing processes.

I enjoyed the proliferation of different types of male and female characters; men and women alike are portrayed as crazy, brilliant, generous, thrifty, ugly, beautiful, spiritual and practical. Almost all the characters are white, but Gilbert is highly sensitive to the issues of racial slavery at the time, carefully describing the shame of the white community’s attitudes and the lack of action.

Gilbert’s writing style is highly descriptive, and it sometimes felt as though she was simply listing events in the characters’ lives to demonstrate the passage of time. I soon realised that these moments reflected the botanical taxonomies that Alma so carefully builds and cherishes, and so actually mirrored Alma’s thought processes and desires. This is a well-written and intriguing book, full of warmth, wit, historical research and, at the centre, an endearing main character.


Julia Tulloh is a freelance reviewer.

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