Thursday, September 3, 2015

Review: The Signature of All Things

Summary: 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. -- Viking

Despite reading tons of great reviews about THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert, I still wasn't thrilled when my book club decided to read it for June. Had I known that I would be at the beach and miss the meeting, I admit that I probably wouldn't have picked it up. I didn't consider myself a fan of Ms. Gilberts after trying to read EAT, PRAY, LOVE; and truth be told, this book didn't appeal to me in the slightest based on the description. However, I gave it a shot and actually ending up really appreciating it. You could even say I liked it... a lot.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS takes place during the 18th and 19th centuries and tells the story of the Whittaker family. Henry Whittaker was born in England and grew up very poor; however, he made a fortune in the quinine trade and became one of the richest men in Philadelphia. His daughter, Alma, would like to follow in his footsteps so she decides to becomes a botanist.

Alma has few friends -- really just her beautiful sister and one other girl, and she's pretty much decided that she's going to be a spinster. She focuses mainly on her science instead of relationships... which eventually allows her to examine the concept of evolution. However, when she meets Ambrose Pike, her life is turned upside down. He is an artist who paints gorgeous orchids, and he introduces Alma to the world of the spiritual.

Through her relationship with Ambrose, Alma begins to took at all of life and question how it works. Her initial impressions about science are also called into question and she becomes one of the brightest minds in evolution theory. Through Alma's life, THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS takes readers all over the world and vividly demonstrates the amount of change taking place during this exciting time.

It's been quite awhile since I've finished THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS but I still remember this book vividly. I think that's a testament to how powerful of a story this is and just how well written it was. I'm not sure what I was expecting when I picked up this novel, but it certainly delivered more than I had hoped. It was well researched, well written, and very literary. Count me impressed with Ms. Gilbert as a historical fiction author!

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is an epic story about one family, and especially one woman, that was both smart and interesting. No one was more surprised than I to discover that I actually was interested in Alma's life and even botany and evolution. I enjoyed seeing the world through the pages of this book, and I was really impressed with how she wove Alma's life story into what was really going on during this transitional time in world history.

Alma, like her father, was a fascinating character. I can't say that I liked her all that much, but in this novel, that totally didn't matter. She was an odd duck to say the least, and Ms. Gilbert created her so well that she seemed like a real person. I loved how she balanced the science and intelligence aspects of Alma with her desire to be loved. And I found Alma's ideas about life to be incredibly interesting... especially for a woman during that time period.

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is a big book -- I read it in hardcover and it weighs a ton. It's not a quick read, and yet the story does move at a steady pace. I never found myself getting bored with the story (which quite honestly shocked me), and that's probably because this book accomplishes so much. I was so impressed with how "tight" the story was. Alma's professional and personal live blended perfectly with what was going on in the world, the characters were all extremely intriguing. Overall, it was just an enjoyable and educational read.

And that brings me to my next point, and probably what I liked the most about THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. This novel taught me a thing or two about history and science, and it made me think. I loved that this book questioned the status quo and it made me rethink my opinions on certain things about life. At the very least, it allowed me to consider the role of religion and the spiritual on our world today.

I am sorry that I missed our meeting for THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. I'm pretty sure it was a great meeting because this book has so much to discuss. There is a reading guide available with fourteen questions. Some of the themes you might want to explore include the role of women, science, religion, class structure, friendship, love, parent/child relationships, evolution, curiosity, and sexuality.

I was pleasantly surprised by THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS. It thought it would be too long, too boring, etc.; and yet, I ended up really enjoying it. Highly recommended to fans of historical fiction.

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this novel.


Vanessa Sobotta said...

I was like you and not sure I would like the book but read it quickly. I like the historical aspect but was really impressed by the the botany background. Who knew moss could be so interesting?!

bermudaonion said...

My local bookseller knows I don't really care for historical fiction and has recommended this to me more than once. She said it's the best historical fiction she's ever read but I'm like you were - hesitating to pick it up because I'm not convinced I'll like it.