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.
This is the first fiction book I’ve read of Gilbert’s. I had only read Big Magic before, which I loved deeply. This one has been sitting on my shelf waiting on me for years, and I’ve been more or less over looking it till recently.
I thought I knew what the flow of this book was going to be like, but it wasn’t anything that I expected. For starters, the book covers the main characters entire lifespan. We start with her birth and we end the year of her death. That’s unique. You normally don’t get that in a book. I… liked it. I hesitate because since it wasn’t what I expected I was a little disappointed with it. Not as much the time span, but the idea that the book was trying to encapsulate what an entire life time was like rather than a story within that time. It made the ending satisfying, but in a very different way than most stories do, with clear conflict resolution. Instead it said: this is how life is, it’s terrible and wonderful and that’s it.
I like that resolution, but since it wasn’t what I was looking for going in or while I was reading I was taken aback by it. I guess I like it when my ending are either happy or sad instead of just telling you the actual reality.
But it was still a good book. The writing was wonderful. The research was impeccable. I can’t imagine how much time Gilbert spent researching this book. I didn’t just feel entertained, morally upheld, and emotionally connected but I actually felt educated reading this book, which is normally something I only get from non-fiction. I liked that, a lot. I could see the work and it was flawless.
Without giving spoilers I can say that it wasn’t only the timeline that I wasn’t expecting but the turns the plot took. This book went in all sorts of directions I wasn’t expecting, some I really liked, some I had mixed feelings on, but all fit in with the topic and the theme of the book flawlessly.
I understand why people love Gilbert and I give this book four out of five stars.
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