The Signature of All Things
I had no interest in Eat, Pray, Love in either book or movie form; it just sounded self-indulgent to me. But a novel about a female naturalist in the nineteenth century stumbling on ideas similar to Darwin’s? Sign me up! I loved The Signature of All Things – it’s an excellent reminder of why I like to read non-genre fiction now and then.
The Signature of All Things is about Alma Whitaker, an extraordinary woman with an uncommon upbringing and rare education. The first part of the book actually explains her father’s life so that you understand where he comes from and where she comes from, and it’s worth noting that this book meanders; Gilbert takes her time as she explains the characters and lets them unfold. Alma’s father Henry was the son of the head gardener at Kew. Henry’s a bit of a charlatan who steals from Kew’s famous director and gets sent on a voyage with Captain Cook rather than to prison. He sails around the world learning about culture and business, and eventually strikes out on his own with a Dutch wife and a botanical/pharmaceutical business in Philadelphia.
Alma is Henry’s only biological child. Both parents encourage her intelligence and education, and she grows up learning about languages, biology, and anything else she takes an interest in (which is nearly everything). Her childhood dinner table features constant stream of guests from among the most notable minds of the day, and her parents expect her to converse and hold her own with them. The only real bump in the road is the addition of her adopted sister Prudence, who joins the family after her biological parents are killed. Prudence is very reserved, and though intelligent is not as brilliant as Alma. She is, however, beautiful – which serves to teach Alma, who has never thought about it before, that she is considerably less beautiful.
The book follows Alma as she grows up, is disappointed in love, tends to her father’s business after the death of her mother, and develops her own scientific interest and expertise in mosses. Alma eventually has an ill-fated marriage, travels to Tahiti, then writes a treatise about evolution (more or less at the same time as Darwin), and ends up with her mother’s family in the Netherlands.
I realize how this sounds, and that I am not making it sound fascinating. However, it is fascinating. This is the very best type of historical fiction, and it’s what I used to love before I discovered romance (and became disenchanted with most historical fiction, dismissing most of it – accurately in my opinion – as depressing). When I heard about the book, I mistakenly believed that most of it was about Alma traveling the world, but the reality is that most of Alma’s observations about the world are made from her family’s estate, and many of them from observing moss advance and retreat across rocks for years. I know that sounds about as fascinating as watching the grass grow, but it’s in her observations about the natural world that Alma finds insight into human behavior, including her own.
It’s a meandering journey, but it doesn’t feel like a slow journey – or a boring one. Rather, it feels like an insightful commentary on an unusual woman with an unusual life. I liked her – in spite of her untidy aspects, or maybe because of them. If you enjoy books about women with a scientific bent – before society found that entirely acceptable – you won’t want to miss this one.
But though it’s mostly about Alma – and she’s certainly the main reason to read this book – it’s not all about Alma. She learns through her interactions with nature and with others. The natural world is a character here, and her observations about how others approach it help her develop her grand theory. It’s also full of secondary characters, many of whom have more to them than meets the eye, and all of whom are believable – and worth your time as a reader. Most notable of these are Alma’s parents and sister Prudence, and her ill-fated husband Ambrose, who is only on stage for a short time but influences Alma personally and scientifically.
Though it might seem like an odd comparison, I’d recommend The Signature of All Things to Gabaldon fans. Not perhaps, because it’s full of sexy highlanders or time travel (it isn’t), but because Gilbert’s meandering style and fascination with botanicals have a very Gabaldon feel. Although I guess if you are the Outlander reader who wishes Gabaldon would get to the point and stop nattering on about plant life, you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.
I originally vetted this book as a book club selection and decided that some of the scenes were too racy (my book club is fairly conservative, and the masturbation scenes would probably be a bit much for some of them). Though that didn’t work out, I’m glad I read it anyway. It’s beautifully written and well worth the time. If you read historical fiction as well as romance, I recommend it highly.