The Signature of All Things
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Viking Adult, 2013. 512 pgs. Historical Fiction
Elizabeth Gilbert, of Eat, Pray, Love fame, is back at fiction after more than 13 years, with this interesting and gorgeously written book about Alma Whittaker, a female botanist of the 19th century. The book follows Alma from before her birth with the rise of her father (an early American botany baron), through her nine decades of life; following her passions, intellectual interests, frustrations, jealousies, loves, heart break, and gradual accumulation of wisdom. I found the writing to be intricate and detailed, and the book appealed to my fondness for beautiful prose and character driven arcs. The plot experiences a multitude of twists and turns, up and down with no satisfactory resolutions to many of the story lines, which to some could be frustrating, but I found to be a very accurate depiction of the real experiences of an individual over a lifetime. At the end I felt as though I had come to know Alma Whittaker more thoroughly than almost any character I've encountered.
Gilbert's historical and scientific research is fascinating, and her descriptions are exquisite. The book follows the amazing transformations in scientific understanding of the 19th century and raises, through both the scientific and interpersonal plots lines, many interesting philosophical ideas and questions. For someone looking for a satisfying plot line this will be a frustrating read, but for someone looking to really know a character in this interesting time period you will come away with a dear friend.