I just finished this book after an almost sleepless night engrossed in this book. It’s not a cliff-hanger/thriller type of read, but the book is compelling enough that I could not put it down without finding out what it had to say.
The Signature of all Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Before starting this review, I must mention that I have not read Eat, Pray, Love (Gilbert’s previous bestseller) or seen the hit movie starring Julia Roberts. I am generally suspicious of bestsellers…and if people recommend books saying this book will change your life, then it’s guaranteed that I will not read that book. In my humble experience, there are very few books that actually change your life… or perhaps I am not easily changeable, LOL!
Anyway, I had happily dismissed Eat, Pray, Love as a piece of forgettable fluff (and maybe I was wrong to do so), and I was prepared to do that for this book as well. After reading the complete book, I am happy to say that this book is not fluff, not even the teeniest weeniest bit.
In this review, I talk about the book on its own merits without any comparisons whatsoever to her earlier work.
So what’s the story about?
On the face of it, this is a story about Alma Whittaker – a serious and plain, but very intelligent girl who is fascinated by botany. Alma Whittaker is born in 1800 in America – the daughter of a self-made millionaire and lives an idyllic life in the lap of luxury. The only thing lacking in her life is good looks and a man to love her for who she is.
When she is rejected by the man she loves, Alma takes to an intellectual life pursuing the study of mosses. Her story then picks up in the latter half of her life, when she unexpectedly finds herself in love again.
How this new love turns her world and her thoughts and beliefs upside down forms the rest of the novel.
In structure, this book is like one of those old-fashioned historical fictions, somewhat in the style of The Thornbirds by Colleen McCullough. However, The Signature of All Things is a hefty book in terms of scope (and probably page count too).
From my synopsis above, you may be forgiven if you conclude that this is a more unusual type of love story. That’s really not the case. The love story in this book is merely a prelude to set Alma on the path to learning.
Straddling a fascinating period in intellectual history when science and religion battled it out for supremacy, this book is dotted with long, intense discussions on homosexuality, mental illness, mysticism, the abolitionist movement and, of course, natural science. Don’t get intimidated by what admittedly sounds like a grim textbook…the writing is sound, the pacing is good, and the book throughout is very readable and more important, engrossing.
For a start, the book is full of adventure. It starts with the story of Alma’s father Henry – a disgruntled boy of a gardener in the famous Kew Gardens of England. Searching for a way to escape his poverty, he ends up traveling the world with Captain Cook. The story of how he rises from an illiterate boy to a pharmaceutical millionaire is fascinating. Henry turned out to be one of my most favorite characters in the book.
Another engrossing and somewhat puzzling character is Ambrose Pike. He makes an appearance in the middle of the story as a love interest for Alma. I found his character puzzling until I realized his actual purpose in the novel was something else altogether. His relationship with Alma sets her off on a deeper spiritual and scientific quest and ignites debates on genesis vs evolution, and the Darwinism principles that revolutionized the world.
These discussions make fascinating reading. Gilbert chooses not to provide a resolution to these debates (after all how could any resolution satisfy?), but I love the way Gilbert manages to make an inconclusive ending feel so very, very satisfying.
All in all, I can summarize this book with one simple sentence – this is an adventure story that appeals to the intellect. I highly recommend this book if you are looking for historical fiction that deals more with the evolution of natural sciences and intellectual and scientific thought rather than sociopolitical themes.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Publishing for sending me a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
You can also purchase this book from Amazon