REVIEW: The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert (Review by Terry Purcell)

by |July 15, 2013

Click here to order The Signature of all Things.When I was handed The Signature of All Things I noted the name of the author and popped it on the pile of books marked, not urgent. Yep, I let my prejudice against the author of Eat, Pray, Love influence my decision even though it was obvious this new novel was a departure from the squillion copy selling EPL. Then, one night I overheard a couple of booksellers talking. One had taken the plunge and had read The Signature of All Things. This was a bookseller whose opinion deserved respect and she had loved it. Loved it.

The next day I picked up The Signature of All Things. It was immediately obvious to me that this was a work of historical fiction of the highest order but it was a big book and with so many other books on my pile already, I gave it to my dad. Here is his review:

I must say from the outset that I read The Signature of All Things, which is a hefty tome, in about 4 or 5 sessions and I enjoyed it enormously.

This is a large ambitious novel by the author of the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love and while it can be seen as an historical novel, it the story of a very “modern woman” of the type more commonly found “carrying” many current novels.

The story pulled me in quickly and I was soon unsure if I was reading a novel or an interesting biography – the sense of authenticity was such that at times I felt I wanted to grab my iPad and consult Wikipedia to check some facts!

Gilbert skillfully includes amongst the cast of characters, historical figures such as Cook the explorer and his long time sponsor the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks, as well as frequently enlisting the support of a number of famous scientific figures.

The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a self educated botanist who grows up on a large estate created in Pennsylvania by her immensely wealthy but uneducated father Henry Whittaker, whose young life is reminiscent of successful English buccaneers of the then recent past.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s considerable ability is most evident when, despite the ever present scientific and intellectual lingo, she helps the reader to really understand and empathise with Alma whose make up and circumstances conspire to near guarantee she is destined to lead her life as single independent woman, a fate thought to be unbearable at this point in history.

However Alma’s plight is softened love, initially from her rather severe Dutch mother who, on her premature death, is replaced as Alma’s key support by Hanneke de Groot, the equally severe Dutch head housekeeper of the estate. Hanneke guides Alma through various long and difficult periods with what we today call “tough love”, underpinned by clear thinking and common sense, as well as insights gained from a lifetime of living with Alma and her family and observing their idiosyncrasies.

Yet Alma is driven by her intellectual and botanical interests as well her sexual frustrations during her long life until all three are more or less satisfied in the most extraordinary ways.

This is an extremely readable novel which has the curious capacity to put into perspective our own trials and tribulations when compared with the difficulties our forbears, regardless of their station in life, had to cope with 200 years ago.

It is also a timely reminder in this era when everyone wants a quick fix to the many problems and disappointments common to many of us, that being a part of a family can often provide the lifelong support and love most of us need and occasionally crave for.

Having read and enjoyed this intriguing and well structured story, I admire the author Elizabeth Gilbert greatly. Not only for her mastery of storytelling, but also for imbuing this great novel with a raft of messages about life for 21st century readers. The Signature of All Things is destined not only to be an international best seller, but also to win a swag of prizes.

Review by Terry Purcell

Click here to buy The Signature of All Things from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

Don’t forget to take a look at two wonderful videos promoting The Signature of All Things. The first from Australia…

…and the second from the US.

Click here to buy The Signature of All Things from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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About the Contributor

While still in his twenties, John Purcell opened a second-hand bookshop in Mosman, Sydney, in which he sat for ten years reading, ranting and writing. Since then he has written, under a pseudonym, a series of very successful novels, interviewed hundreds of writers about their work, appeared at writers’ festivals, on TV (most bizarrely in comedian Luke McGregor’s documentary Luke Warm Sex) and has been featured in prominent newspapers and magazines. ​Now, as the Director of Books at, Australia’s largest online bookseller, he supports Australian writing in all its forms. He lives in Sydney with his wife, two children, three dogs, five cats, unnumbered gold fish and his overlarge book collection. His novel, The Girl on the Page, will be published by HarperCollins Australia in October, 2018.

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  • July 15, 2013 at 4:03 pm

    I am shocked at your prejudice, John! I have never understood the antipathy towards Eat,Pray,Love – I thought it was great fun and after seeing her in conversation with Caroline Baum in January I now have a genuine girl crush on Liz Gilbert. I defy anyone who was at the Opera House that day not to. I will add this to my ‘to read’ list – it has been garnering good reviews in the US, too – although I guess she could live without the royalties.

  • Jenn J McLeod | Come home to the country...

    July 15, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    What a very thoughtful and helpful review. Thank you.

  • September 24, 2013 at 3:35 am

    You know what I find interesting about the relentless animosity toward Elizabeth Gilbert/her work because of “Eat Pray Love” is 1) the sexism/snobbism inherent in much of it (and that it comes from SO many people who haven’t read EPL) and 2) people forget/don’t realize that she was a very well-regarded fiction/nonfiction writer before Eat Pray Love. It’s too bad–and I say that as someone who liked EPL but had no trouble understanding why some people wouldn’t. I’m glad she’s back with a strong novel and kudos to you for rising above your prejudice. 🙂

  • January 1, 2014 at 11:49 am

    Too many compare and over analysis . Just enjoy on its own entirety . I did. A bit of a modern day gone with the wind.

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