Review by Shellie for The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert.
Shellie’s quick take: A wonderful, engaging historical fiction novel that has the science of botany as a key element. It has an amazing strong female character and an encompassing theory on the nature of all things.
Shellie’s description: When Alma Whitaker is born in Pennsylvania, USA in the year 1800, her exceptionally wealthy British father Henry is pleased. Alma will be his only natural child, will receive an education uncommon for women, and will want for almost nothing for her entire life. Alma is not a beautiful woman, but her strengths lie in her brilliant scientific mind and her excellent constitution. She spends her childhood days categorizing plants and reading in her father’s huge library. As an adult Alma becomes one of the first women to publish within the field of botany.
This is the richly imagined life story of Alma Whitaker, her driven father whose interest and dedication to botany build him a fortune, and her stalwart and complex family. It is set relatively soon after the American Revolution, during the civil war, and while the theory of evolution was taking form.
Shellie’s thoughts: There’s a lot to like about this book. From the very start it becomes apparent that Elizabeth Gilbert is an expert story teller. I was entirely swept away with writing that flows and that captured me from the first page until the last. I particularly like that the characters are well developed and complex with a lot of back story. The book also has some famous historical characters which adds to the richness of the story line - such as Charles Darwin and Captain James Cook, who where significant contributors to science and botany - giving the book an authentic historical feel. There are some interesting settings within the novel which may intrigue readers, such as Kew Gardens, a botanical garden in London established in 1756 that is now a UNESCO World Heritage site, and Tahiti, where the author goes into a good deal of depth about the culture and the setting.
As the title suggests one of the book’s major themes is a grand sweeping theory about the nature of humans and life in general, and since it is one that I agree with it made me like the book even more. My only quibble would be a strong and slightly embarrassing sexual thread that runs through the novel, which was a bit much for me. If this particular element had been a little lighter the book would have rated higher in my opinion. However, it’s a terrific novel and comes highly recommended. I would say one of my favorites this year at 4.5 stars.
Paperback | 512 Pages | 24 Jun 2014 | Penguin Books | Adult