Review: THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert

I received THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS to review through Net Galley. I had liked Gilbert’s EAT, PRAY, LOVE but I heard this novel was very different. I just loved this story which follows the life of Alma Whittaker, a highly intelligent, gifted botanist of Dutch descent, living in Philadelphia in the 1800’s.

This lengthy novel (over 500 pages) starts with young, industrious Henry Whittaker, who travels with Captain Cook and becomes a well-known and respected (and very wealthy) expert on botany. He marries an intelligent Dutch woman and together they make their home on an estate in Philadelphia and have a daughter, Alma. Alma is incredibly precocious and socially awkward but endearing. Throughout the book she is quick to point out her flaws and her shortcomings, but her intelligence and perseverance shines through. Alma is unlucky in love and is devastated by her short-lived and ill-fated marriage to a young and gifted artist. Alma travels to Tahiti to find out more about her husband’s death, and this journey of discovery takes up a large portion of the last third of her book.

I really enjoyed Ms. Gilbert’s writing. I know little about botany and was rather surprised that I found Alma’s intense and in-depth study of mosses actually rather interesting! I loved Alma’s intense scientific studies and her passion for Darwin’s theories (along with her own brilliant suppositions). The excitement of scientific inquiry and discovery from that time period (mid 1800’s) shines throughout this story. There are some sexual passages in this book, but I did not find them excessive or overly graphic. Rather, they made Alma seem more human to me.

Thanks, Net Galley and Viking for my copy!

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