5th January 1800.
Alma Whittaker is born into a perfect Philadelphia winter. Her father, Henry Whittaker, is a bold and charismatic botanical explorer whose vast fortune belies his lowly beginnings as a vagrant in Sir Joseph Banks' Kew Gardens and as a deck hand on Captain Cook's HMS Resolution. Alma’s mother, a strict woman from an esteemed Dutch family, is conversant in five living languages (and two dead ones).
An independent girl with a thirst for knowledge, it is not long before Alma comes into her own within the world of botany. But as Alma’s careful studies of moss take her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, the man she comes to love draws her in the opposite direction.
The Signature of All Things is a big novel, about a big century. It soars across the globe from London, to Peru, to Philadelphia, to Tahiti, to Amsterdam. Peopled with extraordinary characters - missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses and the quite mad - most of all it has an unforgettable heroine in Alma Whittaker, a woman of the Enlightened Age who stands defiantly on the cusp of the modern.
Read Caroline Baum Review
I love this book without reservation. For its breadth, ambition and generosity of spirit, its curiosity and sense of inquiry, its connection to the natural world and the life of the mind and its celebration of the body. I love the fact that it celebrates a brilliant woman who although fictional, could have existed. I love the fact that it is all about knowledge as a noble pursuit and about pleasure for pleasure's sake.
Alma Whittacker is an unforgettable character: plain but clever, pulsating with curiosity about all things, big and small. Born in privilege at the beginning of the nineteenth century, she is a lady botanist but soon discovers desires of her own that are anything but ladylike. Her quest for knowledge and love take her to Tahiti and beyond, on a journey that is as much of an adventure for the reader as it is for Alma.
I don't want to say more, because the joy of this book is to discover the world as Alma does, while being grateful that we live in more enlightened times. The book is full of wonder and such well-timed surprises, that laughter and tears stole up on me without warning. It also left me in awe of Gilbert's luminous prose, and her ability to be both light of touch and profound of meaning, dispelling any notion that Eat Pray Love was her defining work. A triumph that should win everything.
About the Author
Elizabeth Gilbert is the acclaimed author of five books of fiction and non-fiction. She is most well known for her 2006 bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, which has sold over ten million copies worldwide and was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. Her short story collection Pilgrims was nominated for the PEN/Hemingway Award, her novel Stern Men was a New York Times Notable Book and The Last American Man was a finalist for the National Book Award. Her most recent work, Committed, was a Number One New York Times bestseller. Elizabeth Gilbert lives in New Jersey.