by Clémence Moulaert
Elizabeth Gilbert is the famous author of Eat, Pray, Love but did you know she was also a journalist and has written other books, amongst which are two novels, a collection of short stories and two works of nonfiction? The Signature Of All Things, published in 2013, is her second novel, an epic saga set in the nineteenth century.
Alma Whittaker, ‘born with the century’ in 1800, is set to live an extraordinary life. The daughter of Henry Whittaker, a famous and fearsome botanical adventurer, and Beatrix, a Dutch woman of prodigious intellect, she is wealthy, educated, and has the fortune to meet and converse with the intelligentsia of the times. The family lives in Philadelphia, in a grand estate known as White Acre.
Alma grows up to be a sharp-witted, inquisitive and opinionated child, but not at all pretty; the opposite of her adopted sister, Prudence, who is icy, introverted, and tragically beautiful. The girls’ differences are most notable at the dinner parties, where renowned scientists come to dine with the Whittakers and Alma engages in the conversation as if she were a famous botanist herself—whereas Prudence only ever speaks up to break the occasional silence with a demure, ‘Do go on.’ Affection is not encouraged in the stoic household, run more like a business than a family home, and one certainly does not show emotions; ‘Become the master of yourself,’ is Beatrice’s advice.
Teenagehood is not kind to Alma. With every passing year Prudence grows more exquisite while Alma becomes known as the clever daughter, not the pretty one, and rivalry sets in between the two girls. Henry, Alma’s first love interest, rejects her and marries her whimsical friend Retta instead. But unbeknownst to everyone, Alma has found some solace in the pages of a pornography book and a private space known as the binding closet.
Starved of affection, Alma finds comfort in the study of an unusual botanical topic: mosses. While her sister marries, Alma establishes her career and life seems fine as it is. But then along comes Ambrose.
A talented artist and spiritual man, Ambrose is going to challenge the way Alma sees the world, pushing the boundaries of her carefully constructed, perfectly logical world. It is a love like she has never known, and it will rock her perceptions to their very core.
Alma’s incredible life takes us through the nineteenth century along her travels from Philadelphia to Tahiti and Europe, on daunting sea voyages and tumultuous emotional rollercoasters, from the deepest pits of despair to the highest points of ecstasy. The narrative is a perfect balance of historical detail, emotional discoveries and poetic discourses on botany. You will be so absorbed in the life of this extraordinary woman that you will forget she exists only on the pages of a book.
The Signature of All Things is the chronicle of Alma’s trials, mishaps, dashed hopes and crushed dreams, mistakes and missed opportunities—and how she rises above it all. A definite must-read for women of all ages and backgrounds, this stunning new novel by Elizabeth Gilbert is one of Air 3 Book Club’s all time favourites.