Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Signature of All Things - Elizabeth Gilbert

Summary: In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into 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 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.

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.
Summary and cover art from indiebound.org

My Review: Alma was an unexpected blessing, born to intellectual parents late in their lives. Being an only child she was raised more like a peer than a child. She is a wildly intelligent girl but also rather peculiar. This is her story beginning with her father's childhood in the 1760's and transcending over a century to the 1870's. Alma has a natural love for botany and finds reprieve in the natural challenges through her garden studies, especially in her study of mosses.  She is fluent in many languages and possesses a great aptitude for science, particularly biology. Her work in this field will eventually define her life.

The Signature of All Things could probably be most easiest defined as a heart-wrenching love story. Alma falls in love with two men over the course of her life but is also deeply in love with her work. As we can all relate to she faces a multitude of difficult decisions throughout her life. At times she is able to make a wise choice but at other times she chooses quite poorly. In hindsight the better path seems quite obvious but it is difficult to determine when closely viewed. Regardless the combined outcomes of her decisions, regardless of their seeming magnitude, shape her life for better or for worse.

There is a multitude of material to ponder over but above all else is the study of love and humanity. This book is bravely done, written with great pose and confidence. To tell a story of this magnitude is a huge feat but it is accomplished masterfully. This tale covers heartache and loss, self discovery and small triumphs. It ponders several universal questions, such as what sacrifices have others made unknown to you in order to ensure your happiness and, likewise, what desires have you smothered in order to ensure the happiness of others?

Overall I have mixed feelings on this one. It is somewhat anticlimactic. There are bouts of drama but they are almost overshadowed with large amounts of scientific and historical detail. Yet the writing is smart, artful, and easily accessible to the layman. The tale is incredibly thought-provoking and sticks with the reader long after the cover is closed. And it can't be denied that Gilbert has a talent for drawing one into her tales.

My Rating: 3 Stars

To sum it up: A highly researched historical novel that explores the impact of choices throughout a lifetime.

Sensitive readers: There are many sensuous moments explored in detail that may be uncomfortable.

1 comment:

Melissa Mc said...

Passing on this one.

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