The Signature of All Things

The Signature of All Things

Book - 2013
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"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. he 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"--Provided by publisher.
Publisher: New York :, Viking,, [2013]
Copyright Date: ©2013
ISBN: 9780670024858
Branch Call Number: F GIL
Characteristics: 501 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm


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Sep 17, 2019


SPL_Brittany Feb 13, 2019

A sweeping historical fiction novel told against the backdrop of the Age of Enlightenment, that follows the life of Alma Whittaker, the daughter of the richest man in Philadelphia (Henry Whittaker) in the 1800s, who becomes a distinguished botanist and leading authority on mosses. Author of "Eat, Pray, Love", Elizabeth Gilbert writes a leisurely novel, full rich historical details along with the discussions within the scientific community during this period.

Though far from a fast read, I enjoyed taking my time and getting to know Alma Whittaker and her unique upbringing. I enjoyed travelling with her characters across the globe and delving into the scientific community during the Age of Enlightenment.

Readers who enjoyed Annie Proulx's "Barkskins" are sure to delight in this novel.

IndyPL_AnikaW Dec 04, 2018

Fantastically lyrical fiction about a 19th century female botanist/illustrator who focused on researching mosses, which she described as a "stupefying kingdom" as she gazed through a magnifying glass.

Alma Whittaker is an especially compelling and sympathetic character...and the details included by Gilbert on mosses and other aspects of botany as well as the theory of evolution make for a rich and engaging read.

Nov 03, 2018

I like botany so reading about mosses suits me well, but the book seems forced. I don't feel the writer's love for botany - did she plough through her botanical research, hoping to provide an unusual backdrop for her plot, or she truly enjoys plants? Anyway the poor characters are not well developed either. They don't come alive as they could have.

Sep 30, 2018

Interesting characters, great Botany information, and a great period piece.

RogerDeBlanck Jun 30, 2018

The Signature of All Things is impressive in both its breadth and detail. Seen primarily through the perspective of the inimitable Alma Whittaker, a botanist with an inexhaustible craving for knowledge, the narrative explores a treasure of ideas in the field of natural science. The story of Alma’s father Henry and the peerless Whittaker family is meticulously developed and beautifully told. For such a multi-generational epic, the story is never slow or boring. The lovely prose seemingly gallops along. Passion exudes on every page. But with all the intelligence and rapture the book delivers, some of its adventures felt as if they could have elevated to a higher level. The ending, though satisfying and interesting, came across as decidedly more expository, rather than revelatory. Nonetheless, this is a rich and enchanting novel that I recommend. It is a substantial literary work and a pleasure to read.

Apr 22, 2018

Loved this book ! Well written with wonderful characters, a magnificent journey through a period of time . A fabulous exploration of science verse spirit and our humanness.

Sep 30, 2017

Well-written enough that I did finish it, but I did not enjoy this book. The characters were all "ugly," and I just couldn't make myself care about them.

Feb 18, 2017

I was drawn into this historical fiction tale from the first chapter. There is a lot of scientific detail but I found the main character delightful. She is a woman stuck in the wrong century! I enjoyed the questions her character raised in her quest to understand moss, science, love, and the 19th century world around her.

Jan 09, 2017

In Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, we are introduced to Alma Whittaker, an engaging heroine whose story stretches all the way through the nineteenth century and takes us from Europe to America and on again to Tahiti. Alma’s story is an engaging one even as it is one of self discovery that explores such universal themes as romance, sexuality, death and spirituality/religion. Perhaps the most memorable series of events in the book is the discovery by the main character of books that explore sensuality and which aid her in her attempts to explore her sexuality in the privacy of a broom closet. Alma is a scientist, a botanist to be exact and it is her attempts to understand the world around her through the study of the mysteries hidden in plant life, that help her to begin to understand her identity. It is refreshing that Gilbert refuses adhere to the commonality of the binary theme of good versus evil. There is no clear antagonist here and all that threatens the main character’s happiness is herself and her actions. As is the trend of most historical fiction, some real life historical events play a great deal in creating the background to which the story is set. For Alma it is her discovery of the theory of evolution and the publication of Darwin’s theories which closely resemble hers. The Signature of All Things is a work of prose evocative of beauty and the power of womanhood.
- @TheEccentric of the Teen Review Board of the Hamilton Public Library

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