Review: ‘The Signature of All Things’


The Signature of All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

  • Date Finished: March 12, 2014
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Year: 2013
  • Project: n/a
  • Reading List: Spring 2014
  • Grade: B+
  • Thoughts upon reading:

Ostensibly, this was a book that was supposed to get me in the mood for spring. It is, in fact, a great book to do so – if only I weren’t living in southeast Michigan and Mother Nature decided to dump eight inches of snow on us today. Nevertheless! In this novel by Elizabeth Gilbert, famed memoirist of Eat Pray Love fame, we learn the story of Alma Whittaker, a 19th century botanist who lives an extraordinary life. The daughter of the richest man in Philadelphia, Alma is born in 1800 and her life will, in a way, reflect the explosion of scientific discovery and wonder that defined the first half of the 19th century.

And, that is the most succinct way I can describe The Signature of All Things because this is a really big story. Gilbert doesn’t leave any stone unturned, undescribed, or unnarrated from the moment Alma’s father was born, to her death in Holland as a 90-year-old woman. We start with the “brief” story of Alma’s father and how he became the, well, richest man in Philadelphia. We learn about Alma’s deepest wishes and fears growing up, her secret loves. We learn about her 20 years studying the moss-covered boulders in her backyard. We learn how she goes to Tahiti. We learn how she travels around the world. We learn almost everything you ever needed to know about evolution and Alma’s unquenchable desire to learn the why and how of nearly everything she encounters.

We also learn a LOT about plants. This book is tied together by the study of botany, as well as the wonder and beauty of the plant world. The Whittakers make their fortune off plants, Alma essentially comes by her own theory of natural selection via plants, there’s a weird sex scene in a moss cave….I don’t know, just PLANTS. I too share a fondness for botany and plant life, and at times, this book inspired me to learn more. It certainly made me wish I had the patience to be a scientist like Alma. But at the end of the day, the plant talk became a little wearying, especially the nearly 500 pages of it. Whew.

As you can imagine, the book has its own faults. As I mentioned, we follow EVERY step of Alma’s life in The Signature of All Things, and it’s a long life. While Alma’s life is fascinating, I could do with a little less show and a little more mystery. I believe Gilbert showed us so much of Alma’s life to make her more real, including some very private secrets – masturbation, her overwhelming desire to have sex. I understand why it was included, and I appreciate the honesty – just because she lived in the early 1800’s doesn’t mean it wasn’t a time that women didn’t touch themselves. But at the same time, Gilbert talks about it a lot off and on, and at the end of the day, I can’t figure out if Alma’s sexual desires were a theme or just there for shock value.

Overall, though, I very much enjoyed this book. It was fun and refreshing to read a novel about a woman of science living in the age of Darwin, especially by someone as gifted as  Gilbert. OK, the writing wasn’t perfect – did I mention the over-description at times? – but it was still a very good, solid story, and one that I’m glad I read. The book takes you all over the world and leaves you dwelling on dozens of different ideas and thoughts. Sure, Gilbert may have struggled tying all these experiences together into one unifying story, but that’s OK. I still had a wonderful time reading about it.

Before I leave, I do like what the book has to say about science, nature, the meaning of life, and the role of man in the world. You see, Alma spends her entire life trying to unravel life’s mysteries, all the while surrounded by people who enjoy basking in and admiring its beauty. At the end of her life, she’s trying to unravel why some people are so good and unselfish with another thinker, and explains her opinion on religion and the role of God. I think its a good one:

‘You see, I have never felt the need to invent a world beyond this world, for this world has always seemed large and beautiful enough for me. I have wondered why it is not large and beautiful enough for others – why they must dream up new and marvelous spheres, or long to live elsewhere, beyond this dominion…but that is not my business. We are all different, I suppose. All I ever wanted was to know this world. I can say now, as I reach my end, that I know quite a bit more of it than I knew when I arrived. Moreover, my little bit of knowledge has been added to all the other accumulated knowledge of history – added to the great library, as it were. That is no small feat, sir. Anyone who can say such a thing has lived a fortunate life.’


One thought on “Review: ‘The Signature of All Things’

  1. Pingback: A look back at spring. A look ahead to summer. | Paperback Fool

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