Alma Whittaker’s pragmatic mind has always hungered for knowledge and the challenge of a puzzle.
But when botanical artist Ambrose Pike turns up at her quiet Philadelphia home, he appears to be a puzzle too far.
Torn from her beloved books and studies, Alma finds herself thrust onto an adventure that will take her across the globe and shake the foundations of everything she thought she knew.
The Signature of All Things is a novel by the renowned author of Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert (which is certainly worth a look, by the way, if you haven’t already read it).
Born in Connecticut in 1969, Gilbert studied political science at New York University, where she spent her evenings writing short stories.
Stern Men, her first novel published in 2000, won her distinction as a New York Times Notable Book. Her latest novel, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, came out in September last year.
The Signature of All Things is a fascinating tale of love, loss, passion and sacrifice, set at the height of an age of exploration and endeavour.
I deeply enjoyed, as I do with all Gilbert’s work, the intimacy of the narration – be it one of her characters’ voices or her own.
Henry Whittaker was one of my favourite character in the book. Though a little rough around the edges, I really loved his storyline and his fire.
His loyalty to Alma is unwavering and, like many fathers do, he knows his daughter often far better than she knows herself.
Alma’s characterisation is also finely developed and it’s good to see so much of her father’s spirit in her.
Whilst Alma and her family are entirely fictitious, there was a British botanist named Whittaker who worked at Kew Gardens in the 1830s.
His name was Joseph, rather than Henry, and he would also take his family to the new world – though in this case southern Australia rather than the US.
Victorian female botanists were also not uncommon, although many took up the pursuit after Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. Furthermore, like Alma, their work was taken seriously by the male dominated, scientific world.
My dear readers I would say if you are a fan of strong, dominant leading ladies – then this is certainly a novel for you. Moreover, you are blessed with not one powerhouse female lead, but many.
From Alma’s fearless mother and sister to the violent warrior wives of Tahiti, there is a serious note of girl power in the novel. Of course this is reflective of the brutality of the times and the old evolutionary bedrock of survival of the fittest.
Speaking on evolution, there is a lot of theological discussion in the novel, but I never thought it a hindrance to the storyline. The different sides are all argued well and actually it made for a very engaging read.
It is also important I think to note that the character transitions in the novel are superb (although maybe overall Alma could have spent a little less time in the binding closet… ).
Generally then, I thought the book was a triumph – from the moment you opened the novel Gilbert had you eating out of the palm of her hand, which shows the mark of an excellent writer.
Published in the UK by Bloomsbury, in July 2014, The Signature of All Things retails at £8.99.
Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It, based on a collection of life journeys inspired by Gilbert’s bestselling novel, will be released on March 29.