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. 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.
”She was her father’s daughter. It was said of her from the beginning. For one thing, Alma Whitaker looked precisely like Henry: ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose…What’s more, Alma was clever like him. Sturdy, too. A right little dromedary she was---tireless and uncomplaining. Never took ill. Stubborn. From the moment the girl learned to speak, she could not put an argument to rest…She wanted to understand the world, and she made a habit of chasing down information to its last hiding place, as though the fate of nations were at stake in every instance.” (Page 51)
Alma Whitaker is born on the cusp of the 19th century to a family of wealth in Philadelphia. Her father, Henry, worked his way up from poverty in Great Britain to be a leading botanical importer/exporter. She is an inquisitive, extremely intelligent child and enjoys her parents’ dinner table which comes alive with guests whose intellectual powers soon absorb and draw her in. Her inborn curiosity soon leads her to become a published author whose scientific knowledge of botanicals in general and mosses in particular set her on a lifelong path of scientific inquiry. Meanwhile, Alma is also on a road of self-discovery as she tries to uncover the intricacies of life itself. But then she finds herself falling in love with a man who introduces her to the spiritual world which raises many questions in her scientific mind.
Gilbert weaves the scientific with the human interest stories that surround Alma with a driving narrative that is hard to resist. Across the globe and through the century, from Peru and London to Holland and Tahiti, Gilbert doesn’t miss a beat with a driving narrative that made this book hard to put to down. Brilliantly researched, passionately written, I did not want this book to end. Very highly recommended.
Other events, like the smuggling of quinine bark tree seeds, vanilla plantations - they are all from the true history of botany, and they are all borrowed here. It is like taking puzzle pieces of real events and then connecting them in new ways with a new player inserted (Alma and her father). It is entertaining, but what is the point? Why not come up with NEW events, a new story? This is not historical fiction either, it is some in between story
The author presents an extremely well researched book and I admire her for her accurate descriptions of science, the theory of evolution, and botanical diversity. This is in fact remarkable and a big feat, which she should get a lot of credit for. But, still, when it came to mosses, the information in the book was weak. Mosses is the main thing for Alma, and still, we have no descriptions of their variation in leaf shape edges under the microscope, no descriptions of their unique sporangia (those brown stalks on top of the green shoots), and so on. Did Gilbert not look into any moss floras? Did she not interview a bryologist for this book? Mosses are not just lush and green pillows of plants - they are so much more than that.
I did read this book with pleasure and thought it was entertaining, but in the end, the story was just contrived. Why Alma goes to Tahiti to seek out the mystery of her deceased husband after she herself condemned him to Tahiti does not make sense. And while in Tahiti, why isn't she even mentioning the vanilla plantations that her father supposedly has there? The whole sexual encounter in Tahiti is unbelievable. I have such mixed feelings about this book - I liked reading it, but I feel I can't really recommend it.
My final criticism regards the included interior images in the book, which really adds value to the story. However, nowhere in the book does it say which works and artists that made those images. The source is just the library at the New York Botanical Garden. When part of the book really is about botanical illustration and the printing of these in the 1800s, shouldn't such images that are included in the book be properly referenced?
This is the life story of Alma Whittaker, a female botanist born in 1800 to a wealthy and unorthodox Philadelphia couple who train her in languages, thought, and persistence, expecting her from a young age to keep up and participate in their glittering intellectual dinner parties. She lives into her 9th decade, and her adventures, and those of her father, whose story is told before hers, weave together many threads of the development of evolutionary thought during the mid-1800s. Her life takes her to Tahiti and Amsterdam, through some very complicated and dramatic relationships, and finally to her own conclusions, independent of Darwin and Wallace, of the reasons for biodiversity. Wallace even makes an appearance, which was a delight.
I hesitate to mention many of the most interesting events, because readers should discover these for themselves. Just wonderful, especially for anyone with an interest in scientific thought during this time period.
Book Description: adapted from Penguin Random House
… 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, a utopian artist, who draws her in the exact opposite direction – into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. The two opposites are united by a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.
Wow! The Signature of All Things is told at a roaring pace, travelling the globe from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam – its numerous eclectic characters as varied as the novel’s geography. One of things I consider when rating a novel is how long its characters will endure with me. And Gilbert has provided many whom I expect to be travelling with me for a good while. Alma Whittaker herself is unforgettable. Not least fascinating about her is the fact that she lives well into the Industrial Revolution, allowing her to participate in the explosion of new ideas challenging science, religion, and social class. Indeed, my favourite part of the novel is the interplay between herself, Charles Darwin, and Alfred Russel Wallace on the universal notions of origin, evolution, selection, and human altruism and self-sacrifice. Fascinating!
Admittedly, I’d never have guessed Gilbert had The Signature of All Things in her, after the self-centered tripe that was Eat, Pray, Love, and its more pathetic successor, Commitment. But her writing here, as well as her storytelling, is extraordinary. I didn’t want to put this one down! Juliet Stevenson, ever inimitable – makes an already fabulous novel even better. Highly, highly recommended!
But Alma comes alive. At least she did for me. I don't know quite what to make of Gilbert's insistence on Alma's physical unattractiveness--I kept wondering whether someone as smart and interesting and passionate as Alma could really be as ugly as Gilbert repeatedly tells us that she is. But I loved Alma's desire to know how everything works--everything, from her mother's accounting system to the growth of plants to the human heart. I loved that she seemed to have a perfectly productive and content life, most of the time, without being hung up on romance. I loved that there weren't a lot of scenes showing her longing for a husband and children. But most of all, for reasons I can't quite articulately explain, Alma felt very much like a real person to me and twelve hours after finishing the book, I am still trying to figure out how to manipulate the space-time continuum so that she and I can hang out and talk about moss.
There are so many problems with this book--so many things I don't like: Prudence's story, from beginning to end. Retta's story, from beginning to end. The character of Tomorrow Morning. The fact that Tomorrow Morning is named "Tomorrow Morning." The way Gilbert seems to just give up in exhaustion rather than coming up with a coherent, sensible ending. But I loved Alma, and for that reason alone, the book felt worth my time.
It is about a woman with a fine scientific mind who can tell you everything about every kind of moss, but who is never able to attract the romantic attention of a man--that is until she reaches middle age. So that's the first third of the book.
And then she does attract the attentions of a man, but that is just a painfully awkward story that results in a painfully awkward situation. So that's the second third of the book.
And then she takes off on a ship for the other side of the world where she discovers. Well, I'm not sure exactly what she figured out there. And that was the last third of the book.
And then it was over and I said "what the heck was that all about?"
The language and imagery make this book a real pleasure to read, and Alma's story is a wonderful ride. While this is not the right choice for a quick or casual read, I enjoyed every word and would recommend it without reservation.
Unfolding over a century from the late 1700's, The Signature of All Things is a fictional portrait of a remarkable woman and her extraordinary life. Alma Whittaker was born in 1800, the only surviving child of an austere Dutch mother and a father defined by his ambition and entrepreneurial talents. Blessed with rare intelligence, Henry and Beatrix 'encouraged a spirit of investigation in their daughter', and with the family seat of White Acre in Philadelphia offering endless opportunity for education, eventually developed a passion for the study of botany.
While The Signature of All Things follows Alma's path of scientific exploration and curiosity, leading to a specific interest in Bryology (mosses) it also examines themes of family, love, philosophy, faith and loss. Alma's life's journey is absorbing in both its ordinary and extraordinary unraveling. She is challenged by her parent's adoption of a sister, Prudence, a friendship with the mercurial Retta, dashed romantic dreams, and the deaths of her parents. She struggles to understand her emotional and sexual desires and to resolve her shortcomings, to find personal fulfillment and finally to define her worth to the world at large.
The writing of The Signature of All Things is lovely, with the tempo and elegance of the historical period. Gilbert's research is impressive, I don't have a green thumb at all but even so I was fascinated by the botanical information imparted during the story. My interest really only wavered during the time Alma spent in Tahiti, thankfully a brief interlude in what is otherwise a beautifully crafted novel.
Intriguing, thought provoking and moving, The Signature of All Things is a compelling novel of historical fiction. I recommend you forgive Gilbert the conceit of Eat, Pray, Love and pick this up.
Alma's character is one that invites us to look at early 19th century women in a new light. There are also other women of note in the story: her mother Beatrix, who is portrayed as a strong women with many talents, well educated and speaking several languages, but who is still often subservient to her husband, and who does not show her daughter any warmth or what we think of as motherly nurturing. She is raising a future botanist, a successor to herself (as it turns out) and is determined not to allow any feminine "weaknesses" to emerge in her daughter. There is Alma's adopted sister Prudence, raised in the same mold as Alma, and also not receiving (or giving) any warmth or friendship towards her sister. In the background is her mother's maid, Hanneke, who is always there to provide what little warmth Alma can expect from life, w.hile still maintaining her mistress Beatrix' stiff upper lip.
Her father, Henry Wittaker, is self-made man who has emigrated to American in 1776 after sailing the world with Captain James Cook. Henry is a strong and central character throughout the story. In fact, Gilbert sees him as so significant that she devotes the first four chapters of the book to filling in his background and life motivations to show how they influenced his daughter's upbringing.
From the first though, the reader is drawn to Alma. She's not beautiful but she's brilliant, talented, stubborn, inquisitive, and determined to learn as much about the world of botany as she can. As she goes through life, she marries, separates from her husband, finds her true calling the in the world of mosses, cares for her widowed father, and finally, sails the world in search of her heart's dream. It's high drama, but every bit of it is believable. It's scientifically detailed, but it's gripping and easy to understand and enjoy. It's a romance, but it's certainly no bodice-ripper. It's historical fiction, and as such, it serves up a delicious slice of life during the age of high seas adventures, far-off lands, and life before the industrial revolution.
However, I was reading nothing but good reviews for The Signature of All Things as soon as it was published, and one of the best things I read is that it wasn’t at all like Eat, Pray, Love, so when my stepmother sent it to me as a Christmas gift I was delighted.
And it is not, for the most part, like Eat, Pray, Love; in fact it could hardly be more dissimilar. An historical novel set between 1760 and 1883, it ranges from the birth of Henry Whittaker in England, through his impoverished childhood to his business empire building in pharmaceuticals and botanical exports to the birth of his daughter Alma in America, and then follows her life as she continues with her father’s interest in botany, becoming an amateur scientist specializing in mosses. Normally I tend to grouse about long books (and this one is exactly 500 pages), as I often believe the author could have told a better story with fewer words, but in this case I think the length is more than justified by the amount of material Gilbert is covering and her skill in doing so.
I have to admire, more than anything else, the obviously extensive research Gilbert did on the history of the times she was covering, and not just on the study of botany (which is impressive enough and includes some gorgeous botanical illustrations) but on the culture of the times, people’s attitudes and behaviors that were often so very different, and often objectionable, to modern sensibilities.
I love stories that combine history and science (and can strongly recommend Andrea Barrett for anyone who shares this taste) and for the most part The Signature of All Things was a wonderful read – the exception came toward the center of the story when I felt the author began to stray in unfortunate Eat, Pray, Love territory as she dealt with the adult Alma’s relationships with her adopted sister, Prudence, and later with her, well, I guess we can call him a non-husband and their joke of a marriage.
It seems to me that Gilbert meant us to fault Alma (as the other characters in the book do, including Alma herself) over her misunderstanding of Prudence’s feelings for Alma and the “great sacrifice” she made for Alma’s sake. Unfortunately, the way the sisters relationship and history was set up by Gilbert, Alma’s correct understanding of Prudence would have involved the ability to read minds, since at no point in their lives together was Prudence anything but distant and coldly civil, giving every impression that what she wanted most from Alma was to be shed of her company. And the “sacrifice” that it seemed I was supposed to admire was idiotic, even for a young woman.
And then there’s Alma’s “husband” – and there is no other way to apply that word to him except in quotes – an emotionally unstable man whom Alma fell in love with and wed shortly after first meeting him, then discarded even more quickly but continued to obsess over for years. All thru this portion of the story (sadly a longish one) I couldn’t help thinking “Am I supposed to be taking this seriously?” Alma’s emotions for her goofus of a “husband” seem to me entirely imaginary – created by the feverish and frustrated needs of an aging spinster and maintained out of a desire to have some kind of emotional life no matter how pathetic.
Fortunately, this portion of the story finally comes to its (embarrassing, in my opinion) end and it gets back on track with Alma making use of her exhaustive knowledge of mosses to make her own way in the world, and ends with her meeting Alfred Russel Wallace, the young explorer who was nose-to-nose with Charles Darwin in proposing the theory of evolution by natural selection.
I very much enjoyed this book, aside from the mind-boggling emotional stuff at the middle, and I suspect that is just me, and someone with a more sentimental turn of mind would find the business with the sister and the “husband” more understandable.
The problem for me was that it was such a huge book which read more like a biography than a story. I expected to find the botany side of it quite interesting but I didn't and I just didn't feel engaged with the characters or the story. It was too dry and wordy for my liking. I think this book will appeal to people who like a sweeping epic of a book with lots of description but sadly wasn't the right choice for me.
Life made Henry hard. He was a man bereft of ethics, driven only by the desire to overcome the poverty of his background. As he traveled, he learned about new and exceptional plants with special qualities. He became even more unscrupulous acquiring great wealth in the process. He cultivated medicinal plants, with curative powers, that he obtained through illicit means. Eventually, he built an estate in Philadelphia, called White Acre, a play on his name, Whittaker. Alma, brought up in this luxurious environment, followed in his footsteps becoming an expert botanist and an authority on plants. She eventually even published books in her field. She seemed like the moss she studied, sturdy, strong and self-sufficient. Through her in-depth study of moss, she developed a theory strikingly similar to Darwin’s “survival of the fittest”, believing that plants could adapt and alter their structure to their surroundings, but she never published her findings. She couldn’t seem to satisfactorily apply her theories to humans and so she felt obliged to continue her scientific study.
When Alma was nine years old, her mother adopted the child of an employee on the estate. He had murdered his wife and then taken his own life. Beatrix did not want their child, Prudence, a beautiful young girl, to be left to the mercy of the mob, the men who offered to care for her for obvious reasons. She took her in and she became the sister of Alma. Alma was referred to as the plum by her father, while Prudence was called Exquisite. The “sisters” were never really close. Prudence was very quiet, polite and considerate, easily liked by everyone. Alma was very outspoken and self-absorbed, able to carry on conversations with anyone, but not to endear herself to them. Aside from their friend Retta Snow, a strange and beguiling young girl, they had no other friends. The one thing they had in common was a man, George Hawkes, whom each of them loved. He, however, loved only one of them. Each of them experienced love in different ways, each of them suffered silently; each entered into an unfortunate marriage.
Life took each of these characters in different directions. The interesting details and descriptions of their travels were enlightening. Often there was a comic element to the book where one would least expect to find it. More often, though, I found the book to be devastatingly sad and disappointing. None of the characters seemed to have fulfilled their dreams except for a semi-mad man of the cloth, the Reverend Welles, and he brought humor to what I found to be an otherwise depressing narrative.
The book is written in beautiful prose with each word carefully chosen for its eloquence. The reader of the audio captured the emotional qualities of all of the characters perfectly, making them come alive on the page. For me, the five parts of the book went off on too many tangents, making it hard to decide what ultimate purpose the author had in mind for it. What was the major theme of the story? There seemed to be so many that shared the stage equally. Unfortunate choices and sacrifices, misunderstandings, poor communication, sexual confusion, failed relationships, abolitionists and slavery, sibling rivalry, mistrust and suspicion, insecurity and foolhardiness, honor and ethics, were among the many ideas expressed. There was an undercurrent of “disapproved of” sex, and what seemed to be unnecessary vulgar, sexual references which diminished the beauty of the writing style and text, detracted from the enlightening references to botany and sometimes devalued the cultures of other places. Although very interesting, it was also sometimes too detailed.
The title, The Signature of All Things, refers to the fact that plants are often in the shape of the part of the body they can treat. This is supposedly G-d’s way of helping man identify the correct one to select.
THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS is usually described as a family saga. But it may be more fair to say that it begins with the story of Alma Whittaker's father in order for the reader to better understand Alma.The majority of the book is Alma, from her birth to her death. And what a life, especially after she is 50! So much fiction concentrates on characters who are in their 20s and 30s. What a pleasant change this is to see a woman accomplish so much post-50.
In an effort to avoid spoilers, description of the book stops there in this review. Most reviews say too much.
Too many books insult my intelligence. This one doesn't. That's the best kind of literature.
This novel of historical fiction, well written and obviously well researched, reminded me a little bit of some of the works of Tracy Chevalier, whose novels I've also enjoyed. This is a somewhat slow-moving novel, not particularly action-packed, and it's long. I was never tempted to actually give up on this novel, but it did drag on a bit, and I found myself skimming certain paragraphs to speed things up a little. My book club enjoyed this and it led to a pretty good lengthy discussion. The overall content, a large portion devoted to the study of mosses, was not the most interesting in my opinion, but the fact that this was well researched balances out some of that. Had the subject matter been more stimulating to me and a little more fast-paced, I would've rated this higher.
The mixture of botany, philosophy, theology, and family dynamics is interesting and believable. Alma’s oral obsession with the male is not and frankly, in regards to her relationship with Tomorrow Morning, totally unbelievable. Thankfully, Alma returned from that bizarre island experience back into a world of nineteenth century European botany. This would definitely had a five-star review if the experience in Tahiti had been different.