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The Signature of All Things (2013)

by Elizabeth Gilbert

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,8401783,728 (3.9)220
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)
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    Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver (crittergirl)
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    Euphoria by Lily King (sturlington)
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    The Discovery of Jeanne Baret: A Story of Science, the High Seas, and the First Woman to Circumnavigate the Globe by Glynis Ridley (BookshelfMonstrosity)
  9. 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.
  10. 00
    This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson (crittergirl)
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    Curiosity by Joan Thomas (ShelfMonkey)
  12. 01
    The Origin: A Biographical Novel of Charles Darwin by Irving Stone (ddelmoni)
  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.
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» See also 220 mentions

English (177)  French (1)  All languages (178)
Showing 1-5 of 177 (next | show all)
This was an interesting tale. I felt like I got to know and care for the characters. I wasn't in love with the book as I am with some, but it was better than I had anticipated. ( )
  njcur | Aug 13, 2021 |
A totally engaging story of an amazing woman of science and also an exploration of the place of man in evolution, a juxtaposition of science and mysticism. The winner of the battle seen by me as science but might easily be seen as mysticism by another. ( )
  snash | May 30, 2021 |
I've never read Eat, Pray, Love so I came to this book mostly free of any preconceived notions of what sort of writer Elizabeth Gilbert is. I really enjoyed The Signature of All Things, even though I feel like it went on too long and honestly I was never as invested in the second half as I was in the first (even though I was stunned to see that it was over 500 pages when I was able to tear through it so quickly). I would recommend it to people who like these sorts of gentle historical doorstoppers and are willing to be patient with Alma. ( )
  jobinsonlis | May 11, 2021 |
This isn't a fluffy read, but didn't require a ton of concentration, either. A good mid-range story that I don't regret reading but won't need to read again. ( )
  KittyCunningham | Apr 26, 2021 |
I quite enjoyed this book. It is very different from the author's Eat Love Prey book that I read previously. The main character Alma is quite the amazing lady. She is a botanist in the 1800's who we follow from childhood through to her old age. Her approach to the world around her was fascinating and I loved following along as her dreams, thoughts, education and relationships are out on full display. She was a quirky but highly intelligent woman and it was great to read about her life and theories. Recommended. ( )
  tinkerbellkk | Mar 28, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 177 (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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