The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
I had the fortune of receiving an autographed hard bound copy of this book for Christmas (thank you Barbette!). I first became acquainted with Miss Gilbert’s writing in her bestseller, Eat, Pray, Love. Say what you will about that book- the fact that it encouraged unprecedented numbers of women to travel is amazing.
Prior to reading The Signature of All Things, I wasn’t aware of Ms. Gilbert’s literary background. I assumed that she made millions on a book that incited a collective wanderlust. What I didn’t expect to find in this book is that Ms. Gilbert is a highly talented author who is able to weave a complex narrative over several decades and continents, which would always leave me wanting to read more. And I would have, but it’s a 499 page book, and early shifts at the hospital invariably got in the way.
The book starts out with young Henry Whittaker, an intelligent teenage thief who understands that he can make a fortune by selling rare plants from the Kew Gardens where he is employed, to rare plant collectors around Europe. When the scallywag is found out, Henry is already bound for Philadelphia, where he builds a vast estate, complete with gardens and steam powered greenhouses. He has a daughter, Alma, who becomes the crux of the book. Alma goes about her formative years as a pith helmeted, safari-jacket-wearing tot, ever weary of the indoors and always curious about the natural world.
Alma and her sister are educated in the farthest reaches of Latin, French, chemistry and biology by their formidable mother. Alma is an adept scientist, though the landmark theories she designs are received with substandard regard from the scientific community, as she is after all, a female. Alma persists with her studies, particularly those regarding mosses; and eventually her theories intersect with those of Darwin.
There are several thick subplots of love, treachery, loyalty and honor from the most unexpected protagonists, which keep the story propelled forward. Add dashes of perilous sea travel, the discovery of foreign religions, an unusual marriage, and a secret between sisters to keep the pages turning.
I have been a pilgrim to Miss Gilbert’s import store, Two Buttons, in Frenchtown, NJ, every time that I’m in the area. The store is an organized jumble of treats from around the globe, including gorgeous hand carved toucans from Brazil, singing bowls from Nepal, and my all time favorites- bookshelves made from old Indonesian boat hulls. Oftentimes, Liz is there, accompanied by her husband Philippe, who makes popcorn for patrons in an antique popcorn machine, and wanders around offering wine, describing the varietals in his Brazilian lilt. Go visit if you can!