The Signature Of  All Things

By Elizabeth Gilbert

(Viking Adult, $28.95, 518 pages)

Who is this author?

Elizabeth Gilbert, who began her writing career as a journalist, is rather a rarity as an author: equally at home writing fiction, nonfiction and memoir, she has been acclaimed for “Pilgrims,” a short story collection, her novel “Stern Men” and “The Last American Man,” which was a finalist in the nonfiction category for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Her 2006 inspirational memoir, “Eat, Pray, Love,’ was a New York Times No. 1 best-seller and a huge international success, with more than 30 translations into other languages. Its 2010 film version starred Julia Roberts. Not enough praise? She was named one of the most influential people in the world in 2008 by Time magazine.

Gilbert will speak on Friday, Oct. 18, at 7 p.m. the Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts at Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Ave., Fairfield. Tickets are $35 and include a copy of the book. Reservations: .


What is this book about?

This historical novel, set in the 18th and 19th centuries, is the story of a Philadelphia family whose fortune derives from the quinine trade in South America. Henry Whittaker’s daughter Alma, a brilliant young woman who becomes a botanist and a champion of  of evolutionary theory, has money and a deep respect for science. She falls hard for Ambrose, an artist who makes gorgeous paintings of orchids and opens a door for Alma into the world of the spiritual and magical. Both are seeking the meaning of life, through traveling across the world and moving from the Age of Enlightenment into the Industrial Revolution, and all the while challenging accepted scientific and spiritual ideas.

What does the book’s title mean? Here is what Gilbert told the Salon website:

“The title of the book is actually the title of a theory that was posited in the 16th century by a mad German mystic named Jakob Böhme who believed that God had hidden in the design of every plant on earth the secrets as to that plant’s usage. And I loved the weird magical thinking of that theory. It’s sort of on the border between mysticism and the beginnings of taxonomy and science, and I have a character in the book who still upholds that idea, which is a sign that he’s a romantic and maybe a fool?

Why you’ll like it:

I’ve never been a fan of books about searching for spirituality, so I never read “Eat, Pray, Love.” But I find well-written books about history told through the experiences of compelling characters to be well worth my time, and I expect you will find that to be the case with this book. Reviewers are almost unanimously praising Gilbert’s deep research and the knowledge she brings to light, as well as a vivid and emotionally satisfying writing style.

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says: “After 13 years as a memoirist, Elizabeth Gilbert ….has returned to fiction, and clearly she’s reveling in all its pleasures and possibilities. “The Signature of All Things” is a big, old-fashioned story that spans continents and a century. It has an omniscient narrator who can deploy (never heavy-handedly) a significant amount of research into the interconnected fields of late 18th- and early 19th-century botany, botanical drawing, spiritual inquiry, exploration, and, eventually, the development of the theory of evolution….Born in 1800, Alma learns Latin and Greek, understands the natural world, and reads everything in sight. Despite her wealth and education, Alma is a woman, and a plain one at that, two facts that circumscribe her opportunities. Resigned to spinsterhood, ashamed and tormented by her erotic desires, Alma finds a late-in-life soul mate in Ambrose Pike, a talented botanical illustrator and spiritualist. Characters crisscross the world to make money, to learn, and, in Alma’s case, to understand not just science but herself and her complicated relationship with Ambrose. Eventually Alma, who studies moss, enters into the most important scientific discussions of the time. Alma is a prodigy, but Gilbert doesn’t cheat: her life is unlikely but not impossible, and for readers traveling with Henry from England to the Andes to Philadelphia, and then with Alma from Philadelphia to Tahiti to Holland, there is much pleasure in this unhurried, sympathetic, intelligent novel by an author confident in her material and her form.”

Says Kirkus Reviews: “Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century. ….Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing–a hummingbird, “a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon.” Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry–”unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator”–a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma–botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists–develops a “Theory of Competitive Alteration” in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, “ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose,” and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga ….A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.”

From Booklist’s starred review: “Gilbert, the author of the phenomenally successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love (2006), returns to fiction with her first novel in 13 years, and what a novel it is! Taking her sweet time and digressing at will into areas ranging from botany to spiritualism to illustration, she tells the rich, highly satisfying story of scholar Alma Whittaker. ….But her plain appearance and erudition seem to foretell a lonely life until she meets gifted artist Ambrose Pike. Their intense intellectual connection results in marriage, but Ambrose’s deep but unorthodox spiritual beliefs prevent them from truly connecting. Alma, who has never traveled out of Philadelphia, embarks on an odyssey that takes her from Tahiti to Holland, during which she learns much about the ways of the world and her own complicated nature. Gilbert, in supreme command of her material, effortlessly invokes the questing spirit of the nineteenth century, when amateur explorers, naturalists, and enthusiasts were making major contributions to progress. Beautifully written and imbued with a reverence for science and for learning, this is a must-read.

When is it available?

If you want to explore this book, travel to the Downtown Hartford Public Library or its Dwight, Goodwin, Mark Twain and Park branches.

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