Elizabeth Gilbert’s ambitious, historical novel was my Christmas chunkster and a book I had looked forward to reading since listening to and watching her three-minute book trailer the day she was due to give a reading at the Southbank Centre in London. If I had been there, I would definitely have attended, I think she is a compelling speaker and after listening to this clip below, I knew I would read The Signature of All Things.
Listen to the trailer, her recounting of viewing as a child, her family owned, leather-bound book of Captain Cook’s Voyages full of maps and illustrations lures us towards imagining the kind of character she has created in Alma Whittaker, the daughter of a botanical explorer who sailed with Captain Cook.
Englishman, Henry Whittaker was born in Richmond to a poverty-stricken family, with an insatiable curiosity and desire to improve his station in life and an inclination to want to better others after suffering humiliation at the hand of his British patron, Kew Gardens superintendent Sir Joseph Banks.
One mocking laugh would create a turning point in his life, taking him to the Netherlands and eventually to Philadelphia where in 1793 he settled and established White Acre, a manor, greenhouses and lands to house and tend his expanding botanical collection and commercial interests and where he and his formidable Dutch wife Beatrix, would raise two daughters, Alma, a passionate botanist and intellectual and her adopted sister Prudence, a committed abolitionist and educator.
Alma is the centre of the story and the book follows her journey, her learnings, her relationships and disappointments as she passionately pursues her botanical interests, manages her father’s affairs and slowly develops an emotional intelligence to understand her own character and how she is perceived in the world. In a sense we experience how she feels as Gilbert focuses very much on the perspective of Alma and if I have one criticism, because I really loved reading the book, it was that I wanted to get a better understanding of some the other characters close to Alma.
In particular I wanted to know more about her sister Prudence, who is misunderstood and yet this incomprehension actually serves as one of the more profound metaphors in the book, for she symbolises a gap in Alma’s understanding, one that will prevent her from publishing her Theory of Competitive Alteration which provides a wonderful tie-in with another two authors of such theories, one of whom she will meet.
When I arrived at this philosophical dilemma, I was a little disheartened to discover how close to the end we were, because I could have happily kept reading until Alma discovered or created a detailed response to her question, supported by her understanding of humanity through the passage of a lifetime of observation. It is a question that invites consideration and discussion, one that piqued the interest of this reader.
Two men introduce Alma to alternative ways of thinking and seeing the world and these encounters are both baffling and fascinating at the same time. They confuse and reveal in equal measures and leave one in awe of the miracle of life and an appreciation of our differences and the infinite mystery and wisdom that interactions across humanity behold, in particular with those who live beyond the limits of our acceptable knowledge and experience who reveal that which we struggle to understand. In addition, these two characters take the reader on a thrilling journey to Tahiti and immerse us in experiences that delight the imagination.
If that sounds a little unclear, it is because it is better to embark on the journey of reading to unravel the book’s mystery. It is a well-researched, easily accessible book I am sure will provoke a variety of reactions, there is something in here for everyone and it provides an excellent balance of plot, character, philosophy and discovery to keep one reading late into the night.