Release Date: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Penguin | Viking Adult
Pages: 512 pages
Source & Format: Bought; Hardcover
Amazon | Goodreads
Summary (from Goodreads)
Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker - a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction - into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist - but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe - from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who - born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution - bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questioning spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.
Thoughts on The Signature of All Things
To be completely honest, I'm not sure what to say about The Signature of All Things. I didn't have any plans to read it, but Cassie started talking about it so much that I finally took the plunge. While historical fiction is my favorite genre, I really disliked Gilbert's Eat Pray Love and had read a few things about this one that made me wary. I loved the idea of it, but I wasn't really sure the execution was for me.
I decided to at least read a sample, and the first chapter had been hooked. I was shocked! I loved the writing style and was thrilled at the idea of almost 500 pages of a story like what I was reading. So, I purchased a copy and started it with the highest hopes.
The Signature of All Things is the story of Alma Whittaker, the only child of Henry and Beatrix Whittaker. Though they later adopt another girl, Prudence, Alma is their legacy and heir. She inherits her parents' intelligence - excelling at school and distinguishing herself as a scholar. Where she fails to succeed, however, is in relationships. Plain and brilliant aren't exactly a winning combination on the marriage market in the 1800s. So, she turns to botany and becomes an expert in mosses. It's an unusual place for her, but it eventually helps her find Ambrose Pike. His illustrations of orchids are unlike anything Alma has ever seen, and she soon falls in love with the spiritual and otherworldly man. And that relationship takes her on a journey that she'd never have anticipated.
The first 100 pages of this book were incredible. I fell in love with this story, with these characters, and with this time period. The writing style had me enraptured, and I was so impressed with the way Gilbert seemed to capture the spirit of the times. I only wish that the rest of the book had remained true to the way it began! That is a book I would have absolutely loved. Unfortunately, I was incredibly disappointed in the book overall.
Some reviews I'd read noted that they were disappointed in the sexual content in the book, which had made me hesitant to read this one. Well, it turns out that I should have trusted my original instincts. Around page 100, Alma discovers a book in her father's library about sexuality. She becomes fascinated and obsessed with her sexual desires, and it was frankly incredibly off-putting to read about it. While I understand that Alma was repressed, the detail and continual inclusion of her every thought and desire served no real purpose. It didn't add much to her character, and it left rolling my eyes and strongly disliking the book. When a book is more than 500 pages, I don't want or need to read about repeated visits to the binding closet.
The introduction of Alma's sexual discovery marks a turning point in this book. The tone begins to change - it's less charming and natural. Things begin to get more somber and heavy, and it feels like there are many elements introduced that take a while to ever culminate into anything relevant. It made the middle section really start to drag for me, which is so unfortunate. I certainly didn't expect a happy book, but I also wasn't really prepared for what was in store in The Signature of All Things.
I was actually shocked when the novel jumped ahead approximately twenty years. It goes from Alma deciding to study mosses to her being an expert on them! While I'm not incredibly curious about mosses, I did hope to actually get more a picture of Alma's overall journey instead of just skipping so far ahead.
And then Alma meets Ambrose Pike. If I thought the story had taken a turn for the worse before, I had no idea what was in store once Ambrose appeared on the page. I really don't even want to go into what happens in the rest of the book, but it became increasingly more implausible with every turn of events. The section in Tahiti was absolutely ridiculous and didn't interest me at all. As for what happens, I found it so unrealistic and ridiculous that I laugh just thinking about it. I didn't care about the secret of Ambrose - or even Alma herself at that point. I was craving more of the secondary characters who seemed like richer, more complex and more fascinating creatures by far. Alma has very little growth. She may take a journey to another place, but she remains the same lackluster and unlikeable woman. Following Tahiti, there's an extended discussion on the theory of evolution. At that point, I was just so over the book that it barely held my interest.
I can tell that Gilbert conducted a significant amount of research in order to write this book, but I can't help wishing she'd spent more time with the actual plot and her characters than with the science behind everything. It started out with such potential, but it just went off the rails for me and never recovered. What seemed like minor flaws and frustrations soon became major inconsistencies and implausibilities for me. While I'm impressed by Gilbert's talented way with words, I wish she'd focused more on crafting of her story than she did on her research. The whole thing seemed very indulgent and in need of some pruning - too many weeds in this garden for it to be saved.
"There is a level of grief so deep that it stops resembling grief at all. The pain becomes so severe that the body can no longer feel it. The grief cauterizes itself, scars over, prevents inflated feeling. Such numbness is a kind of mercy."