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The Signature of All Things (2013)

by Elizabeth Gilbert

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,0541883,728 (3.91)229
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.… (more)
  1. 60
    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (zhejw)
  2. 50
    Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier (ddelmoni, vwinsloe)
  3. 30
    The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett (BookshelfMonstrosity)
    BookshelfMonstrosity: At the heart of these richly detailed, elegantly written historical novels are naturalists whose ocean voyages lead not only to scientific discovery but also to a greater understanding of human behavior. Vivid descriptions and well-developed supporting characters enrich both stories.… (more)
  4. 10
    The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan (zhejw)
    zhejw: Alma would have loved this nonfiction book that explains how several plants "used" their relationships with humanity to their evolutionary advantage.
  5. 00
    Galapagos Regained by James Morrow (ShelfMonkey)
  6. 00
    Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (crittergirl)
  7. 00
    This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (crittergirl)
  8. 00
    Euphoria by Lily King (sturlington)
  9. 00
    The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  10. 00
    Captain Cook's Voyages by James Cook (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Major source of inspiration for Elizabeth Gilbert.
  11. 00
    Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer (aprille)
    aprille: I'd lay dollars to donuts this book was a source for a couple of the scenes in the book. Robin Wall Kimmerer is thanked in the acknowledgments.
  12. 00
    Curiosity by Joan Thomas (ShelfMonkey)
  13. 01
    The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin by Irving Stone (ddelmoni)
  14. 01
    Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith (amarie)
    amarie: Also a woman scientist in the 19th century. Less epic in scale but more focused on one woman's adventure and study.
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» See also 229 mentions

English (184)  French (1)  Spanish (1)  All languages (186)
Showing 1-5 of 184 (next | show all)
Very good book, would recommend. I read it on my own and was not a bookclub book but may recommend it for bookclub. ( )
  PatLibrary123 | Aug 9, 2022 |
"The intersection of botany and divinity." -- loving it so far! ( )
  ninam0 | Jun 22, 2022 |
Enjoyable, beautiful at times in her writing. It's one of those sweeping sagas of a family, sort of rags to riches, but more than that. With the daughter, Alma as the centerpiece this leads us through her life as a home educated woman before her time, exploring her world. ( )
  EllenH | Apr 25, 2022 |
Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800. Swiftly- nearly immediately - opinions began to form around her. Alma's mother, upon viewing the infant for the first time, felt quite satisfied with the outcome. Beatrix Whittaker had suffered poor luck this far generating an heir. Her first three attempts at conception had vanished in sad rivulets before they'd ever quickened. Her most recent attempt - a perfectly formed son - had come right to the brink of life, but had then changed his mind about it on the very morning he was meant to be born, and arrived already departed. After such losses, any child who survives is a satisfactory child.
  taurus27 | Mar 16, 2022 |
Beautifully written and descriptive story about the mundane. Alma Whittaker, born 1800, daughter of Henry Whittaker and Beatrix van Devenders, is a brilliant child who leads a very mundane life of duty but finds satisfaction in the study of bryology (mosses). She uses mosses to explore herself and her world in "moss time". Gilbert successfully conveys the frustration a 19th century woman must've felt being a brilliant, yet unrecognized scientist. ( )
  phoenixcomet | Mar 2, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 184 (next | show all)
Should finally redefine Gilbert as a writer with an incredible sense of lyricism, and a rare command of and confidence in her story...She makes broad, unresolvable premises — regular-ish human life, with its aspirations and humiliations, her own or her character’s — look easy, by taking nothing for granted, making sharp and unrelenting observations and framing it with a rare positivity and sense of possibility.
 
Gilbert has established herself as a straight-up storyteller who dares us into adventures of worldly discovery, and this novel stands as a winning next act. “The Signature of All Things” is a bracing homage to the many natures of genius and the inevitable progress of ideas, in a world that reveals its best truths to the uncommonly patient minds.
 
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Epigraph
What life is, we know not. What life does, we know well.
--Lord Perceval
Dedication
For my grandmother
Maude Edna Morcomb Olson
in honor of her hundredth birthday
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Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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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.

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