When I was handed The Signature of All Things I noted the name of the author and popped it on the pile of books marked, not urgent. Yep, I let my prejudice against the author of Eat, Pray, Love influence my decision even though it was obvious this new novel was a departure from the squillion copy selling EPL. Then, one night I overheard a couple of booksellers talking. One had taken the plunge and had read The Signature of All Things. This was a bookseller whose opinion deserved respect and she had loved it. Loved it.
The next day I picked up The Signature of All Things. It was immediately obvious to me that this was a work of historical fiction of the highest order but it was a big book and with so many other books on my pile already, I gave it to my dad. Here is his review:
I must say from the outset that I read The Signature of All Things, which is a hefty tome, in about 4 or 5 sessions and I enjoyed it enormously.
This is a large ambitious novel by the author of the bestselling Eat, Pray, Love and while it can be seen as an historical novel, it the story of a very “modern woman” of the type more commonly found “carrying” many current novels.
The story pulled me in quickly and I was soon unsure if I was reading a novel or an interesting biography – the sense of authenticity was such that at times I felt I wanted to grab my iPad and consult Wikipedia to check some facts!
Gilbert skillfully includes amongst the cast of characters, historical figures such as Cook the explorer and his long time sponsor the eminent botanist Sir Joseph Banks, as well as frequently enlisting the support of a number of famous scientific figures.
The Signature of All Things tells the story of Alma Whittaker, a self educated botanist who grows up on a large estate created in Pennsylvania by her immensely wealthy but uneducated father Henry Whittaker, whose young life is reminiscent of successful English buccaneers of the then recent past.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s considerable ability is most evident when, despite the ever present scientific and intellectual lingo, she helps the reader to really understand and empathise with Alma whose make up and circumstances conspire to near guarantee she is destined to lead her life as single independent woman, a fate thought to be unbearable at this point in history.
However Alma’s plight is softened love, initially from her rather severe Dutch mother who, on her premature death, is replaced as Alma’s key support by Hanneke de Groot, the equally severe Dutch head housekeeper of the estate. Hanneke guides Alma through various long and difficult periods with what we today call “tough love”, underpinned by clear thinking and common sense, as well as insights gained from a lifetime of living with Alma and her family and observing their idiosyncrasies.
This is an extremely readable novel which has the curious capacity to put into perspective our own trials and tribulations when compared with the difficulties our forbears, regardless of their station in life, had to cope with 200 years ago.
It is also a timely reminder in this era when everyone wants a quick fix to the many problems and disappointments common to many of us, that being a part of a family can often provide the lifelong support and love most of us need and occasionally crave for.
Having read and enjoyed this intriguing and well structured story, I admire the author Elizabeth Gilbert greatly. Not only for her mastery of storytelling, but also for imbuing this great novel with a raft of messages about life for 21st century readers. The Signature of All Things is destined not only to be an international best seller, but also to win a swag of prizes.
Review by Terry Purcell
Don’t forget to take a look at two wonderful videos promoting The Signature of All Things. The first from Australia…
…and the second from the US.