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The Signature of All Things

Gilbert, Elizabeth

(Book - 2013)
Average Rating: 4 stars out of 5.
The Signature of All Things
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Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker, a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction, into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist, but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. The story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who, born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution, bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. -- From publisher. In this book the author returns to fiction, inserting her inimitable voice into an enthralling story of love, adventure and discovery. Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the novel follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker-a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction-into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist-but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life. Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe-from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who-born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution-bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas. Written in the bold, questing spirit of that singular time, Gilbert's wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. "--
Publisher: New York :, Viking,, [2013]
ISBN: 9780670024858
Characteristics: 501 pages :,illustrations ;,24 cm

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February 2014


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Feb 20, 2015
  • NFN rated this: 3 stars out of 5.

A well-researched story set in an interesting historical period. However, I agree with the reviewers who grew tired of "the insipid droning of a boring, spoiled, sexually frustrated woman". This is an overrated book which could have been so much better had the editor instilled more discipline.

Feb 01, 2015
  • DorisWaggoner rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

This beautifully written, engrossing historical novel is both totally believable and, at times, a fantasy. Yet the stories, sometimes fantastic, of how Henry develops, chooses Beatrix as a wife, the way they raise and educate Alma, why they took Prudence into their family and why she is the way she is, how Retta becomes their friend, how Alma chooses mosses as her life's work, what Ambrose comes to mean to her, her world travels, and the mixture of these fictional characters and real characters made for an exhilarating read. I've been recommending "The Signature of All Things" to all my “literary” reading friends, and hope they will love it as much as I did. It is both a page turner, and an important book on women's work in science, and, by extension, other fields. Alma and her worlds are still haunting me, in good ways.

Jan 27, 2015
  • browniebelt rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

This is one of the most important books I have read. It is gorgeously written, about important themes of self hood and intellectual curiosity and 50 time better than Eat, Pray Love, which was an enjoyable read and exploration of an inner self, but not the fine piece of thought and writing that this is.

Jan 13, 2015
  • okinpa rated this: 2 stars out of 5.

It was okay. I finished it, after all. But have to agree with the reviewer who said "the insipid droning of a boring, spoiled, sexually frustrated woman."

Jan 03, 2015
  • Hlsi rated this: 3.5 stars out of 5.

A very different story that Elizabeth usually engages in. I enjoyed her fictional story and the historical connections made!

Oct 18, 2014
  • delmacdc rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Great read. Found the writing articulate and elegant. Even though the main character struggled with her place and position she was taught to value work and intellect above other material and personal attributes. Loved the Dutch mothers instructions to her daughters. Made me realize that many of us were raised with the Victorian influence to be ladies who either control or ignore things. No wonder the sixties happened!

Sep 03, 2014
  • YPRL_MANDM rated this: 4.5 stars out of 5.

A well-written and engrossing saga from the author of Eat Pray Love. I found it immensely enjoyable.

patron review

Fiction from the author of "Eat, Pray, Love". Love the development of the characters and all the detail to the botany!

Jul 23, 2014
  • joalo rated this: 5 stars out of 5.

A truly remarkable yarn covering a wide range of topics and fields with larger than life characters, improbable settings and written in a very readable style.

May 12, 2014
  • CynScribbler rated this: 4 stars out of 5.

Beautifully written historical novel with visual settings and engaging characters. Perhaps a few too many descriptions of moss, making the novel a tad longer than necessary, but on the whole, well worth a recommendation.

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