The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

Signature (2)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.

Sir Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society - 1812 print Source: wikipedia

Sir Joseph Banks President of the Royal Society – 1812 Source: wikipedia

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.

Peristeria  barkeri Guatamalan Orchid 1837

Peristeria barkeri Guatamalan Orchid 1837

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.

29 thoughts on “The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

  1. I loved this book! I agree that it would be nice to know what happened to all those other characters, but isn’t that the sign of a great book? It goes on living long after you’ve finished as you can invent little stories for everyone 🙂


    • It was a wonderful read wasn’t it. And reallythere was nothing to stop me enjoying it. It wasn’t so much what happened to the characters that I was looking for, it was more depth of character. I found it hard to believe in the character of Prudence, she was a little two dimensional, due to the lack of interaction, but they were sisters and lived in the same house, so we might have understood her better had the author shown us more of their relationship, especially as she becomes such a crucial element in Alma’s philosophy/theory on life.

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  2. I’m so glad I read your thoughtful review of this very complex (but accessible) book. The book is very much like the character Alma, don’t you think? There are places not explored! A special bonus was Gilbert’s trailer; thank you so much for sharing.


    • Yes, the more I thought about it, the more I realised, even the reader had difficulty seeing outside Alma’s character, so the revelations are felt almost as she would have felt them.

      Isn’t the trailer wonderful, she has a fabulous energy and passion for her work and it shows in the book.


  3. You’ve whetted my appetite. I went on to read a couple more reviews, and all I need is for the book to become available in paperback. It’s rare that I lash out on a hardback these days. Or else I’ll just wait till I’m back in the UK and get it from the library…..


  4. I finished the book a few weeks ago. I was disappointed that we didn’t get to know Prudence better, too, and felt she was extreme, perhaps unrealistically so. Thanks for writing about this book! I wanted to write about it, too, but wasn’t sure what to make of it. Parts I liked, and parts I didn’t. The book reminded me of Andrea Barrett (Voyage of the Narwhal, Ship’s Fever.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I had a bit of a hard time believing her character, her extreme views and her relationship with her sister didn’t add up to the altruism that was suggested of her, Elizabeth Gilbert could almost write another book, centred around the character of Prudence, where we find out what was really going on with her and how her past and heritage shaped her. It could well be a completely different story and blow Alma’s perceptions right out of the greenhouse. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Beautiful review, Claire! You have said a lot without revealing any spoilers 🙂 This book looks quite fascinating and now I want to know more about Alma. It was interesting to know that when you wanted to read more, the book ended. That is always a sign of a wonderful book. I will keep an eye for this book. Thanks for writing about it.


    • Thanks Vishy, sometimes I worry that by not giving anything away, it doesn’t give enough to entice. But even discovering what Alma’s passion will become before arriving there in the book for me spoils the surprise or at least the delight, as it was for me. I hope you come across this one and delight in it as well.


  6. I have read so many contradictory reviews of this book that there is only one thing for it – I am simply going to have to read it myself and make up my own mind!


    • I know the feeling, it’s usually better to get in early, after a while the reviews stop having any relevance, one just has to find out! Even between two people who both really enjoyed the book, I find significant differences, I discussed some of my favourite parts that I continued to think about long after with the friend who lent me the book and she didn’t recall them, she was swept up in her own version of the story, quite amazing how we can have such different experiences and this book definitely promises that.


  7. I loved this book as well and agree with you that a little more elaboration on Prudence (such a fascinating character) would have made the book even more better.


    • I think Elizabeth Gilbert could almost write an entire book from the perspective of Prudence and it might be quite a different book altogether, what with her past and her abolitionist and education activities. There is clearly something driving Prudence, and she must have made her own peace with life, but we don’t get close enough to see or understand her. A sequel perhaps?


  8. Ive been looking forward to this book for a while now. I saw it just yesterday at the library and almost picked it up but decided to be good and dig something out of the tbr pile I already have might have to go back now though…


  9. I thought the book was extraordinary and the sustained metaphor was extremely well-contrived. I thought the characters were totally believable. Being Australian, I knew a lot about Cook’s voyages already but it was interesting to learn more about Joseph Banks. I’ve now read (and enjoyed) Eat, Pray, Love and have started Commitment.


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