In brief: This is the story of Alma Whittaker, born at the start of a new century. Over her life, she’ll see many things change – but will she get what she wants?
The good: It’s an intricately woven tale with each word perfectly placed.
The not-so-good: You’ll want to savour every word so it will take some time to read.
Why I chose it: Sent to me by Bloomsbury Sydney – thank you!
Setting: England, America, Australia, South America, Europe, Tahiti…
My rating: 8.5 out of 10
If I hadn’t received this book in the mail, I more than likely would have missed it. I wasn’t a fan of Eat Pray Love (plus, all of my friends had either an undying devotion or a violent disgust – which meant a lot of discussion). Before you stop reading, I must tell you: this book is NOTHING like Eat Pray Love. For starters, it’s fiction. Historical fiction at that – starting in the late 1700s and meandering through the 1800s alongside our heroine, Alma Whittaker. It’s also meticulously researched – the staggering amount of knowledge presented about botany is amazing. Gilbert can make moss sound sexy. There’s also details of Captain Cook’s voyages and the growth of America. Finally, it’s beautifully written. You can tell that Gilbert has spent a lot of time crafting each sentence – the writing resembles the intricately drawn plant specimens that appear in the book.
Trying to explain the plot of The Signature of All Things is a little more difficult. Essentially, the story focuses on Alma Whittaker – the events leading up to her life through her father, Henry and then as she matures from girl to adult and finally, elderly lady. There are a number of recurring themes in the book – botany being a major one, there’s also a focus on sexuality, loss, women’s rights and to a smaller amount, spiritualism. Alma confronts a number of questions as she grows up – why would a person sacrifice their happiness for someone else? Why don’t a married couple want the same things? Why would you willingly choose unhappiness? This is the story of life lived not conventionally, but to the full. It starts with the animated dinner conversations of Alma’s youth and will take her across the world as she seeks answers.
Alma is an incredible character – she’s not naturally beautiful, she has trouble understanding others – but she’s a person you warm to and want the best for. I loved that Gilbert gave Alma the love of science and made a woman stand out as an expert in her field (bryology – or the study of mosses). This is a powerful feminist symbol in the 1800s! Alma’s adopted sister, Prudence, is also a strong woman – she’s a leader in the abolitionist movement. Likewise, Alma’s role models (her mother and maid) don’t fit into the conventional feminist ideals of the time – they are strong-minded and hold their own against a number of eminent (male) characters that come into the house. It’s interesting that the only female character who meets the ‘ideals’ for that time period, Retta, has an untimely fate as she sinks into madness. A statement on the marginalised roles of women in the 1800s? I’d love to hear what Germaine Greer thinks of Alma Whittaker.
Gilbert also shows her incredible skill for prose in this novel – the words are beautifully, lovingly strung together. It took me quite some time to read this novel because it’s a book where you want to read and appreciate every word. The Signature of All Things is also the kind of book where you get value per page – there is a lot of prose as Gilbert doesn’t use strung out conversations consisting of a few words per line. She has also done a lot of research for this book – I’m not an expert on botany, pharmacognosy and evolution but everything made logical sense. It would be fantastic to see her research notes! If you’re familiar with botany or pharmacognosy, you’ll understand where the title comes from – if not, Gilbert will explain clearly to you what it means and have you thinking, what is Alma’s signature? Henry’s? Ambrose’s? What of ourselves do we leave to the world?
This is a powerful book that asks so many questions through the simple plot of one woman’s life. Definitely worth the time to read it.