Viking Adult|October 1, 2013|Hardcover|ISBN: 978-0-670-02485-8
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, the sun, likely 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 was 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.
The Signature of All Things begins in the 1700’s with Henry Whittaker. Being immensely poor for his family had nothing, Henry decides to become a man of his own making. As a young lad he stole from the Royal Botanical Kew Gardens various types of flowers and barks used in the pharmaceutical business to cure people’s ills. Sir Joseph Banks was the Director and he finally caught young Henry. But by this time, Henry had already amassed a little fortune for himself but admitted nothing to Sir Banks. As a punishment for stealing from him, Banks sent Henry to far off places to learn all he could about plants. He was to keep copious clear and concise notes and provide sketches for everything he studied. The conditions on the ships he travelled were absolutely abhorrent but Henry never so much as complained once. He took everything in his stride.
When the young adult Henry returned to England he had decided to make it his life’s work and aimed to become the richest man in the world.
He married, Beatrix, a Dutch woman who was well-educated and they moved to Pennsylvania. Henry had already amassed such a sizable fortune by this time that he built himself an overly elaborate estate which he named ‘White Acre.’ The people of Pennsylvania were in awe of the this mansion on the hill and the elaborate and beautiful gardens.
Together, Beatrix and Henry had one daughter whom they named, Alma and a few years later adopted another girl named, Prudence who was suddenly in one night left without a family. Prudence was a strikingly beautiful and small as Alma was homely and large. The sisters could never become close.
Henry valued education and the girls were schooled at home by their mother and a tutor until they were eighteen-years-old. Alma followed the path of scientific explanation, loving to study plants, trees, barks, and mosses like her father had. She ended up with a specialty in Bryology, the study of mosses.
Alma’s life did not always go the way she had hoped and often suffered greatly. She struggled for years and years to find personal happiness and fulfillment.
The Signature of All Things is an epic masterpiece that should be read by all. The way the prose and language Gilbert used is hauntingly beautiful and something which I enjoyed very much. The writing was fresh, the characters so well fleshed out you felt like you knew them personally. The descriptive narrative made it easy to hear, see, and smell everything the characters did as if you’d gone through the pages of the book and into the story itself.
I would very, very highly recommend this book to anyone and would like to say “thank you” Ms. Gilbert for the best two days of reading I’ve done in a while.