Title: The Signature of All Things
Author: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publisher: Viking Adult, 2013, e-galley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Women's roles, botany
Setting: England, high seas, South Pacific, Philadelphia PA
Source: e-galley from the publisher
Why did I read this book now? Reviewing for consideration for the Maine Readers' Choice Award.
This lovely book has been sitting in my "awaiting reviews" queue for almost a month. Although I have not been a big fan of previous Elizabeth Gilbert books, this one changed my mind. Her gentle, well-researched, and charming story of Alma Whittaker gives us a clear and perceptive look into the Age of Enlightenment and its interest in botany and its attitudes toward women. Alma is well-educated and shows us the world of gardening, plants, art, publishing, and exotic flora world-wide.
Alma's character is one that invites us to look at early 19th century women in a new light. There are also other women of note in the story: her mother Beatrix, who is portrayed as a strong women with many talents, well educated and speaking several languages, but who is still often subservient to her husband, and who does not show her daughter any warmth or what we think of as motherly nurturing. She is raising a future botanist, a successor to herself (as it turns out) and is determined not to allow any feminine "weaknesses" to emerge in her daughter. There is Alma's adopted sister Prudence, raised in the same mold as Alma, and also not receiving (or giving) any warmth or friendship towards her sister. In the background is her mother's maid, Hanneke, who is always there to provide what little warmth Alma can expect from life, w.hile still maintaining her mistress Beatrix' stiff upper lip.
Her father, Henry Wittaker, is self-made man who has emigrated to American in 1776 after sailing the world with Captain James Cook. Henry is a strong and central character throughout the story. In fact, Gilbert sees him as so significant that she devotes the first four chapters of the book to filling in his background and life motivations to show how they influenced his daughter's upbringing.
From the first though, the reader is drawn to Alma. She's not beautiful but she's brilliant, talented, stubborn, inquisitive, and determined to learn as much about the world of botany as she can. As she goes through life, she marries, separates from her husband, finds her true calling the in the world of mosses, cares for her widowed father, and finally, sails the world in search of her heart's dream. It's high drama, but every bit of it is believable. It's scientifically detailed, but it's gripping and easy to understand and enjoy. It's a romance, but it's certainly no bodice-ripper. It's historical fiction, and as such, it serves up a delicious slice of life during the age of high seas adventures, far-off lands, and life before the industrial revolution.
As I was finishing my draft of this review, our local TV station - WCSH6 in Portland Maine - had an interview with Elizabeth Gilbert, where she describes the book as "Pride and Prejudice" meets "Master and Commander." On their website they posted the "share" code for all to see. (I apologize for the 10 second commercial at the beginning of the clip.) It was a fun interview recapturing the charm I felt reading the book. It's a read I'm more than glad I finished, and one which I'm looking forward to reading again in the future. The e-galley was given to me by the publisher, Viking Adult, for review as one of the long listed books for the Maine Readers Choice Awards. It is certainly one I'm considering for nomination to the short list.
Many thanks to Viking for making the review copy available and to WCSH6 for sharing the video.