Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the 5th of January, 1800. Swiftly – nearly immediately – opinions began to form around her.
“Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Signature of All Things 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.”
I was expecting to love this book, and I did. It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but nonetheless a marvelous work in many respects. I’ve never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous memoir Eat, Pray, Love, or any of her fiction, but I might pick them up in the future if I get around to it. Despite the fact that it was the plot that drew me in, it was the writing that made me stay and enjoy this novel. I just loved the vaguely 19th century narrative style of the book, faintly reminiscent of Austen (and indeed, in the press packet, Gilbert says that Austen was one of the 19th century writers she read in preparation for the book). There was also that singular way of speaking directly to the audience at times, such as towards the beginning of the novel when Gilbert shifts away from Alma’s story to talk about her father’s early life, saying “how her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again.” (pg. 7). If every book was like this, it would be rather annoying. But as it is, this style was amusing and fitting for the book. It’s also one of those rather long novels with lots of great, diverting side-notes, and yet it’s not overwritten at all. The Signature of All Things is compulsively readable and extremely compelling.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s style is also one of little dialogue and lots of narration, except for specific dialogue-heavy scenes. Again, I wouldn’t want to have every book I read be something like this, but it worked here, and I didn’t find the novel boring. At all. It was thoroughly absorbing, and I found Alma a fascinating character. In fact, all of the characters were really interesting, none of them being totally good or bad, all of them with sympathetic sides. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in the aforementioned interview, there are no real “villains” in the story, only complicated, flawed people, all of whom were fascinating to read about, particularly in the early sections, Alma’s parents, who I at times disliked and admired. I particularly found Alma’s father, the at times vicious, at times loving Henry Whittaker an interesting puzzle. He made his immense fortune by less than gentlemanly means, and yet as Gilbert points out, he’d be the first to admit it. And he is kind – sort of, in his own way.
The story itself is just utterly fascinating and engrossing, and so, so creative. The novel spans the entire century during which so much new scientific exploration was done, and religion and science sort of began to clash. In the interview (which isn’t in the actual book; sorry), Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out some really interesting things, such as how painful that split was for many people who had to choose between wholehearted religious belief and science (although not everyone had to choose, of course). However, when Alma is first born and as she grows up in the early 19th century, belief in both is still entirely possible, but through the lens of her intriguing life we see everything on that front change. I’ve never quite been able to put my finger down on why I’m really interested in the 19th century, and maybe this is part of the reason, because the transition into the more modern world really begins in the 19th century, and I enjoy reading about the changing sensibilities of the time. Elizabeth Gilbert really captures the wonder of the time, the sense of everything being really new and just waiting to be discovered. There were so many unknown creatures and plants that it must have been almost magical to be part of that. Today, there are still many scientific things we don’t fully understand, but most of them live deep in the ocean and thus are less relatable, I suppose you could say. She also portrays the opportunism that was there for those clever enough to take it, such as Henry Whittaker, who uses new natural discoveries and his experience in botany to make fabulous amounts of money. It was also the beginning of a time when the heretofore rigid class structure started bending just a little bit, as evinced by the fact that Henry, who was born in abject poverty, becomes one of the wealthiest men in the New World. There are so many new markets opening up on various fronts and class barriers breaking down, and this expansive novel really covers a whole lot of extraordinary things that were going on in the 19th century. Obviously, this process was continued throughout the early twentieth, but it really started here.
One of the other topics addressed in the book is that of 19th century views on sexuality, which is also very interesting. It’s quite closeted (in Alma’s case, literally), and talking about such things is rather frowned upon, especially for women. It’s quite natural though that an intelligent young woman like Alma would want to know about these things, and that was an enjoyable part of the book, although it did strike me as a bit odd at first. As Gilbert mentions in the interview, The Signature of All Things also has many portrayals of flawed marriages, of women stuck in them. What I found particularly striking here was that it’s not that either of the people are bad per se; they’re just ill-suited to one another, and in the 19th century there’s not that much you can do about it once you’re married. She’s talking about the marriages of the three friends, Alma, Prudence, and Retta (who’s quite mad), but I think it could be applied to a lot of people both in the novel and out.
I believe that in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert travels to various places across the globe, and The Signature of All Things takes place in many parts of the world, though chiefly Philadelphia, but also “from London to Peru to Tahiti to Amsterdam.” There were many both beautiful and disturbing settings, but also compelling evocations of so many exotic places in many parts of the book, starting off right at the beginning with the story of Henry Whittaker’s travels. I loved these scenes, because Gilbert really called up the sights, sounds, and smells of these varied places in colonial times.
The Signature of All Things is definitely worth all the hype it’s been getting of late. It had gorgeous writing and description, fascinating characters, a very creative plot, and it talked about some really interesting ideas and concepts, showing a world on the cusp of the modern age and in the midst of a frenzy of scientific discovery. I would highly recommend this novel. I received a review copy from Viking.