Monday, October 28, 2013

The Signature of All Things

by Joan

Last week Pamela mentioned that we are looking forward to seeing Elizabeth Gilbert as she visits Dallas for Highland Park United Methodist’s Authors’ LIVE. Ms. Gilbert is touring to promote her latest novel, The Signature of All Things.

From the publisher: 

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.

Kirkus: “A sweeping saga…superb…writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past…a brilliant exercise in intellect and imagination.”

Barbara Kingsolver: “Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. The Signature of All Things is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to uncommonly patient minds.”

Alexandra Alter, Wall Street Journal:  "In a complete pivot, Ms. Gilbert has turned out the most ambitious and purely imaginative work in her 20-year career: a deeply researched and vividly rendered historical." 

I started hearing the buzz about this novel last month and knew I would love it. From the opening pages, the reader is immediately transported to the 18th century. This sprawling story begins with Henry Whittaker, a lad who, beginning at a young age, values wealth above all else. He thieves his way from native England and across ocean voyages to far away lands, where he pockets rare botanical specimens. After becoming wealthy in the quinine trade, he settles in Philadelphia with his Dutch-born wife, Beatrix. He amasses an even greater fortune there and builds a grand home with extensive grounds, naming it White Acre (a play on his name) along the lines of a Biltmore or Hearst Castle.

Beatrix is a sturdy, unsentimental woman who keeps their business holdings' books and records. In 1800, their daughter, Alma, comes into the world needing for nothing, but wanting to know everything. With unfortunate looks, “her face was far better suited to a grown man than to a little girl,” she is an awkward only child. Henry and Beatrix expect Alma to pursue knowledge with a vengeance. She is as comfortable questioning adults at dinner parties as she is in her own company.

Often left on her own to study and read, Alma delights in finding trunks full of books: botanical, historical, scientific, religious and, of course, sexual. Though she has thus far kept no secrets from her parents, she recognizes as dangerous her developing fascination with one explicit book in particular and the sensual obsession it has aroused in her.

In an effort to fill her dinner table with interesting guests, Alma meets an artist who is a master at painting orchids. Though also highly intelligent, their similarities end there. His focus is on the spiritual, supernatural and magical. For all her interest in facts and hard knowledge, Alma is unable to avoid his pull. But she misunderstands his intentions completely and is left staggeringly unsatisfied and bereft.

I found this to be one of the most compelling novels I’ve read--ever. Even at 499 pages, the narrative is fluid and engaging. Exquisitely written, the characters and settings come alive. What made this novel even more enjoyable for me was listening to the audio version narrated by the brilliant actress Juliet Stevenson. If you enjoy historical fiction and novels with strong female characters, this novel's for you. If you have an interest in botany, philosophy and world cultures, you will be in for an even greater treat.

Dallas visit info: 
Highland Park United Methodist Church's AuthorsLIVE! on Monday night, November 4, at 7 p.m. 

Let us know if you can join us and we’ll save you a seat!


  1. I'm about halfway through the book and loving every moment I'm immersed in the story. Sounds like a wonderful event. Enjoy!

  2. Kerry Ann,
    So glad you are enjoying the book- it only gets better. Thanks for stopping by to comment!

  3. Yes this is a great book on of the best ive read lately!


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