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The Signature of All Things (2013)

by Elizabeth Gilbert

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
3,4391963,687 (3.91)235
" A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert 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. "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. he 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"-- wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. "--… (more)
  1. 80
    State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (zhejw)
  2. 60
    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
    The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  6. 00
    Curiosity by Joan Thomas (ShelfMonkey)
  7. 00
    Euphoria by Lily King (sturlington)
  8. 00
    Galapagos Regained by James Morrow (ShelfMonkey)
  9. 00
    Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (crittergirl)
  10. 00
    This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (crittergirl)
  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
    Captain Cook's Voyages by James Cook (Cecrow)
    Cecrow: Major source of inspiration for Elizabeth Gilbert.
  13. 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.
  14. 01
    The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin by Irving Stone (ddelmoni)
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» See also 235 mentions

English (194)  Spanish (1)  French (1)  All languages (196)
Showing 1-5 of 194 (next | show all)
34% in and I'm throwing in the towel.

I want to like this book but I just seems to drone on and on with no purpose. I feel as if I am reading a book of lists interrupted randomly with bursts of Alma (main character) confessions to reading dirty books or masturbating. Weird.

I was a fan of Gilbert's first novel but a really disliked Eat, Pray, Love. I think now I'm done with her for good. ( )
  hmonkeyreads | Jan 25, 2024 |
I enjoyed listening to this book. Alma was a very interesting character and I loved all the science woven through the book. The narration was glorious....she sounded a lot like Emma Thompson and I could have listened to her all day long. Overall, I liked the book but did not love it. But it was a good read/listen! ( )
  Bebe_Ryalls | Oct 20, 2023 |
Once again, Elizabeth Gilbert takes your breath away. Who knew a book that focused on botany could be so vibrant? Actually, the world of botany serves to define and illuminate the life of the main character, Alma Whittaker. Does Gilbert have a degree in botany? I don't know, but, if not, the amount of time she must have spent to learn all she imparts in this book is mind-boggling!

In a way, Gilbert also seems to "channel" Barbara Kingsolver, another author I love, but, for the most part, she makes this story her own.

The best part of this story is just when you think the end is near, Alma's life takes another path (all leading in the same direction and conclusion, we learn) exploring a new environment, personality of people, and discussion of means people live their lives. ( )
  schoenbc70 | Sep 2, 2023 |
Alma Whitaker kept me company a few chapters at a time each night for about a week. I'm happy I gave Elizabeth Gilbert another go. After the disappoint that was Eat, Pray, Love (which, after the Eat section became too tedious to complete), it took viewing Gilbert's TED talk and a bit of time for me to trust her with my reading time once more.

Admittedly, I'm a sucker for historic fiction, BUT only if it reads with ease and a bit of surprise. Gilbert's writing flows so effortlessly that, between readings, I found myself missing Alma and her odd family as if they were long-lost relations now reintroduced into my life. I appreciate Gilbert's careful research that makes Alma's fascination with botany vividly credible.

Spoiler Alert! What I did not like was Gilbert's carefully constructed "inevitable situation" between Alma and the Tahitian Tomorrow Morning. Naked with a much younger (almost) stranger and the fulfillment of a lifelong fantasy. Really? Oh well.

Favorite bits: the early life of Alma's father, the shift in Alma's perception of her sister, Alma's unpublished paper and the scientists to whom she feels connected because of it. ( )
  rebwaring | Aug 14, 2023 |
Gilbert has an amazing talent for creating characters who feel very real, that you really care about as a reader. This book is a fictional biography of Alma Whitaker, a woman born to a man who made his fortune in the global plant trade. She is incredibly intelligent, and has a natural passion for botany. The book traces her scientific discoveries, her relationship with her complicated family, her unfulfilled desire for romance, and her international travels. I am often frustrated by books where it isn't clear what the plot is, or where the book is going, but in this case, I found Alma to be such a delightful character, and Gilbert's writing to be so engaging, that the sometimes meandering nature of the book didn't bother me at all. ( )
  Gwendydd | Aug 14, 2023 |
Showing 1-5 of 194 (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.
 

» Add other authors

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Elizabeth Gilbertprimary authorall editionscalculated
Stevenson, JulietNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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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
First words
Alma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the fifth of January, 1800.
Quotations
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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" A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge, from the # 1 New York Times bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. In The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert 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. "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. he 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"-- wise, deep, and spellbinding tale is certain to capture the hearts and minds of readers. "--

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