The Signature of All Things is a big, sprawling book that reads like classic literature. In fact, maybe someday it will be classic literature. Elizabeth Gilbert has written an old-fashioned historical novel that has more in common with works by Rebecca Stott (Ghostwalk) and Andrea Barrett (The Voyage of the Narwhal) than it does with Gilbert's most famous work to date, her memoir Eat, Pray, Love.
The title refers to German mystic Jakob Bohme's belief that every object in the natural world contains some hidden meaning, put there by God to help people make sense of the universe. And indeed, this book's protagonist, Alma Whittaker, is searching for meaning. But she's not waiting to hear it from God; she's going to try to figure it out for herself. Alma has very little time for God and a lot of time for scientific analysis, specifically botany. And human nature. And world exploration. All of which she engages in over the course of her long life.
Alma is the daughter of a prominent Philadelphia botanist and plant collector, Henry Whittaker, who makes his fortune developing a method for manufacturing quinine, and whose story takes up the first quarter of the book. Henry and his Dutch wife have unorthodox ideas about women's education (the book is set in the late 18th and early-mid 19th centuries), and they train Alma to manage their vast pharmaceutical empire, botanical collections and gardens.
Considered physically unattractive (tall, big-boned, with unmanageable hair), Alma eschews traditional women's pursuits and spends her time at her parents’ sides learning both business and science. She devotes years to studying various plants before happily settling on mosses (bryology) and becomes the world's leading expert in this field. (Note: historians tell us that botany was actually rife with women scientists in the 19th century, as it required little more than a notebook, pencil, magnifying glass and long walks in the woods, all of which were more available to women than, say, a laboratory filled with chemicals or surgery equipment for dissecting things.)
Tragic events, including a failed love affair and her father's death, upend Alma and force her to step outside her tiny moss world and embark on her quest for meaning in the universe. This section of the book (especially the long middle section about her voyage to Tahiti) reminded me of those books by Victorian women travel writers like Isabella Bird, who stoically endured shockingly harsh conditions aboard 19th century sailing vessels and lived rough among the natives. Alma's journey echoes her father's earlier explorations, but while he was singled-mindedly focused on plants, Alma remains open to discoveries about all aspects of the world and about herself. And it's while she's in Tahiti that she hits upon her own theory of the signature of all things, the pursuit of which takes up the final part of the book.
What a great novel! Carefully researched, ranging among a huge variety of historical and scientific topics, and intensely personal, this book is unique and delightful.