“The Signature of All Things” is an intricate and detailed novel that depicts the life of Alma Whittaker. Her entire life. Beginning with birth to an ambitious if less than brilliant father (the best part of the book), Alma spends her life sharpening her unique brand of intelligence and an unmatched fascination with horticulture and oral sex. The latter renders her susceptible to unwise partner choices and dictates the latter half of her life, which sadly like the mosses she studies can become monotonous and boring. We at MNO Book Club sincerely wish Alma a better after life! While we appreciated the literary artistry, word usage, and apparent intensive historical research present in the book, we were sorely disappointed with our lack of enthusiasm for the story itself.
Reasons to Read: This would likely be a satisfying reading choice for those who appreciate literature as an art form, enjoy philosophical and somewhat circular reasoning, and are intensely interested in the link between the nature of the human body, plants, and God.
Reasons to Pass: This is not a light, easy read. If you reading strictly for entertainment value, we recommend you pass. This is not a day at the beach kind of book.
Genre: Fiction, Women’s Fiction, Family Saga
Suggested Rating: PG-13 There are rare instances of graphic, but short descriptions of oral sex. Adult topics such as homosexual and heterosexual preferences and adult language is used.
Literary Awards: Wellcome Book Prize Nominee for Shortlist (2014), Women’s Prize for Fiction Nominee for Longlist (2014)
Bottom Line: The beginning of this book was awesome. It was almost impossible to stop reading. Then it got a little weird. Then it became tedious and finally it was a struggle to a finish that was less than satisfying. Suffice it to say that the general consensus is that this read was overall a pretty big disappointment.
Would you recommend this book to a friend? No
From the Publisher:
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.