The Signature of All Things Summary and Reviews

The Signature of All Things

by Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things
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  • Published in USA  Oct 2013
    512 pages
    Genre: Historical Fiction

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Book Summary

In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. 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, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers.

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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. [T]here is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form." - Publishers Weekly

"Starred Review. A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination." - Kirkus

"Starred Review. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read." - Booklist

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Kathy

Many interesting subjects
This is a story about Alma, growing up in Philadelphia in the 1800's with her father who is a self-made man with his domain in botany; her brilliant, no-nonsense mother who came from a family of botanists; her Dutch nanny; her reclusive adopted sister, Prudence; and, the many scientists and botanists who were frequent guests at the family home, White Acres. Alma, a homely girl, grows up with a love of botany and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge of everything. Alma develops the “Theory of Competitive Alteration” which she based on her study of mosses and tried to apply to the evolution of all living things. This theory just as easily could have applied to Alma and how she herself altered as a result of many life-changing and heart-breaking events. This moving novel deals with so many issues: life in Philadelphia in the 1800s; the travel and trade of plants and trees in the development of gardens, greenhouses, and medicine; abolitionists; Darwin and like-scientists; life in Tahiti; sexuality; and, two sisters who were “doomed to love” men that they “could not possess” yet still carried on. I find myself, days later, still dwelling on aspects of the story.

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Author Information

Elizabeth Gilbert Author Biography

Elizabeth Gilbert was born in 1969 in Connecticut.  She grew up on a small family tree farm, with her sister, novelist and historian Catharine Gilbert Murdock (author of Dairy Queen, the first in a series for teens).  She attended New York University and graduated in 1991 with a BA in Political Science. 

In addition to writing books, she has worked steadily as a journalist. Throughout much of the 1990’s she was on staff at SPIN Magazine, where she chronicled diverse individuals and subcultures, covering everything from rodeo's Buckle Bunnies (reprinted in The KGB Bar Reader) to China’s headlong construction of the Three Gorges Dam. In 1999, Elizabeth began working for GQ magazine, where her profiles of extraordinary men – from singers ...

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