Tuesday, November 3, 2020

Book Review: The Signature of All Things

 Author: Elizabeth Gilbert

Title: The Signature of All Things

Publisher: Riverhead Books

Publish Date: Oct 1, 2013

Buy: Amazon

Book Blurb: 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.

Review:  Back when lockdown started, The Signature of All Things had been on a list of books to read during quarantine. I requested it from the library before everything got shut down, but I didn't get the book until recently. 

The Signature of All Things is one of those books that leave you wondering. I never read Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love. so I didn't know her writing style. I wondered why I was investing so much time in this book. I wondered why Alma didn't try to grasp what she could out of life when she had it.

This story is about Alma Whittaker for the most part, though the first part of the book deals mostly with how her father came about his fortune in the world of Botany.

For me Alma's story is one part science and one part family saga. The Whittaker family is rather unusual, Alma being the only natural child of Henry and Beatrix. There is also an adopted daughter, Prudence who figures in Alma's life in a stranger way than that of the average sister.

Gilbert's writing, while lyrical, told too much of the story, without letting us really get to know any of the characters as well as you should, especially in a tome of 500 pages.

My biggest take away from this book was poor poor Alma. She had a very scientific mind, thus she should and was unattractive and unable to find love, which she definitely seemed to be seeking. (And always left disappointed) Even when she did find someone who shared an affection for her things did not turn out as she expected.

I loved that as a woman in the 1800s she was allowed to follow her mind and develop ideas of her own. But why should she be left without love? I felt that had none throughout most of her life from anyone, parents, siblings and friends included and her weird upbringing made her more than a little socially inept.

For the most part, the story is depressing, because as I've said, Poor Alma. I like a happily ever after kind of ending, even if the story isn't a romance. Alma didn't have any personal satisfaction, either in her studies, or her private life.

So 500 sweeping pages of poor poor Alma.

It wasn't the best of reads but it also wasn't the worst.


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