The Signature of All Things is such a unique and extraordinary novel I’m tempted to drown us all in superlatives. (See? I’ve already used two in the first sentence.) Elizabeth Gilbert, you are a wonder. Like the unique and extraordinary The Luminaries that I recently reviewed, the narrative style of Signature is nineteenth century, a style perfect for its setting.
We begin in London’s Kew Gardens in the infancy of that project (so what if that was 18th century. We don’t spend too much time there.). Young Henry Whittaker is determined to lift himself out of the squalor that is his father’s hovel in the royal gardens, and he doesn’t much care how he does it. He steals. Gets caught. Is consigned to sail the seas on botanical assignment (With Captain Cook for a while) because of the circumstances surrounding his criminal activities. Thus does he traverse the south seas and climb the Peruvian Andes in the interests of science and of Henry Whittaker. Decades later (All this takes only fifty or sixty pages, is largely tell-not-show, yet Gilbert somehow creates depth as well as breadth as she leaps over the years.) Henry ends up with a large hunk of land and builds a great estate in Philadelphia, where he gets rich by creating an international botanical import/export and pharmaceutical business.
What a grand character Gilbert has given us. I haven’t troubled to look him up. He seems so very real that he might have an actual historical existence. Somehow, though, I don’t want him to be. And anyway, here we are closing in on a hundred pages or so (hard to tell, since I read it on Kindle) when we find out that Henry is not our protagonist after all. No, this book is about his daughter, Alma. His daughter and that of his starch-stiff Dutch wife, Beatrix.
Home schooled like no one else in history and temperamentally suited to taking advantage of her father’s scholarship and the botanical resources that abound in his estate’s greenhouses, Alma (Gilbert pays some attention to names, but never mentions that “Alma” means “Soul.” Not that Alma would go around proclaiming it like the Summer and Smoke Tennessee Williams character, but it’s worth noting and a deliciously appropriate moniker.) Anyhow, Alma develops an intellectual rigor not only from her mother’s tutelage but from the high-level conversation among her father’s dinner guests, conversations in which she is not only encouraged but required to participate.
Along the way, Gilbert gives us an adopted sister named Prudence–there’s quite a to-do about choosing that name–who is both pretty and quiet. A great contrast to the homely, broad-shouldered, six-foot-plus Alma. All this is a terrifically stimulating environment, but come adolescence, what is one to do for love on this isolated estate? Well, first, let’s try something entirely unique even for a 21st century novel–a masturbating heroine. Then there is a human love object–a publisher of botanical works who puts some of Alma’s work in print. But he never proposes, and Alma hasn’t the courage to do so herself. Then comes a young, idealistic wanderer who seems to share both her intellect and her interest in the botanical world.
Sadly, the marriage doesn’t work out for, again, completely unique reasons, and Ambrose Pike is banished to Tahiti, supposedly on company business. Alma shortly follows him–the first time she’s ventured beyond the immediate environs of her home town. Thus, in middle age, begins Alma’s literal and figurative voyage of discovery.
I spare you more summarizing at this point except to say that you’re going to find yourself in the company of angels and natives and missionaries and Charles Darwin–or at least his Origin of the Species. You’re going to encounter misogyny and its opposite from men and from women. And you’re going to fall in love with ungainly, cantankerous, brilliant Alma Whittaker as you follow her in heart and mind from infancy to old age. And you’re going to love Elizabeth Gilbert for creating her.