Book review: The Signature of All Things (Elizabeth Gilbert)

By February 1, 2017Blog, Reviews
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Fiction – supplied by Exclusive Books

Elizabeth Gilbert is best known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love. That’s what happens when Julia Roberts plays you in the film of your zeitgeist book, I suppose.

I wouldn’t know.

(I’ll voluntarily expose myself to all sorts of ridicule by telling you that, like millions of bookclub bobbas, I adored Eat, Pray, Love. I’ve been to Ubud and Gilbert is right about all of it: Indonesia is heaven. Also, because of the book I want to eat in Italy and find my lost self in India. But Eat, Pray, Love was a deeply irritating film. Javier Bardem notwithstanding, the film should have been titled Whine, Moan, Bitch. And I can’t even talk about Gilbert’s hideous follow-up Committed. Just trust me.)

So… I am getting to the point… when I saw The Signature of All Things on the shelves, and spotted the author’s name, I moved on. Yup, I’m a judgey cow. It was only when the glorious Zoe Hinis of Exclusive Books told me she’d heard great things about this book – Gilbert’s return to fiction after a 10-year hiatus – that I took it home.

I loved this book. I love it so much that I read it at snail’s speed, to have it in my life for longer. I left the last 20 pages for about a week, to delay the inevitable end.

Why?

  1. It’s historical fiction, à la Philippa Gregory’s early work – before she became a royal fetishist. Think Virgin Earth, Earthly Joys and A Respectable Trade (three of my favourite novels of all time).
  2. It’s about genius, and its many faces.
  3. It is brilliantly, deeply, carefully, unhurriedly researched and vividly, beautifully, intelligently, compellingly rendered.
  4. It is about an amazing woman. A woman who will, I predict, become a literary heroine. A woman who feels to me like someone Wally Lamb or Pat Conroy could create: flawed, smart, complicated, lovable.
  5. There’s faith and science and evolution and slaves and passion and travel. Now some of these things appeal to me and some of them don’t, but all of them are presented in fascinating ways.

Regrettably I can’t say it better than another reviewer, who said, “Reading this novel took me back to the experience of childhood reading, the feeling of disappearing so completely into characters and worlds that your own life ceases to exist.”

So what’s The Signature of All Things about?

It’s about a 19th century female botanist, Alma Whittaker. She’s the daughter of the gruff, shrewd and successful botanical explorer Henry Whittaker who, born dirt-poor, enters the South American quinine trade and becomes Philadelphia’s richest man.

Alma inherits his vast knowledge, library and riches on his death. But her life – which begins very differently to those of other little girls – continues in adulthood to be a complex one, filled with issues of society, family, love, secrecy, fantasy and science.

The Signature of All Things takes us from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam. Along the way, we encounter memorable characters: ‘missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad’, according to the blurb. Yes, they’re all there. But the most memorable of all is Alma. She was in my head for weeks and she’s there still. Read this novel. You’ll see.