I acquired this book in November 2013, so to read it so long after its release feels unsupportive of Liz Gilbert and lazy on my part. She’s an inspiring person, and especially since I met her the night I got the book, I should’ve given it better attention from the start.
But (this is a valid but), I was still in graduate school and wasn’t reading for pleasure at all. All of 2014 was about reading for school and writing my own novel, so I purposely didn’t read any fiction. When grad school ended in December 2014, I picked up the first book that I’d been anticipating to read for a couple of years, Ken Follett’s Edge of Eternity. I saved it for a post-graduation Christmas treat.
Do you ever save books for a special time? Because you know the book is going to be well above par, emotionally exhaustive, or – simply – you want to give it your full attention?
That’s how I felt about The Signature of All Things. I couldn’t just casually pick it up. I had to pick it up with some level of intention. I’m taking the same care with Khaled Hosseini’s And the Mountains Echoed. I have it, but the right time to read it hasn’t yet come along.
The Signature of All Things spans the entire life of Alma Whitaker, the unattractive mannish daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia businessman who grew his fortune in the botanical market. We start in the late 1700’s by learning how Henry Whitaker birthed that fortune by swindling and storming about the world with a keen mind for import and export. The history of Henry Whitaker is primarily important because Alma is so much like her father, and that’s important because Alma is unlike anyone most of us know.
She is brilliant from birth and follows in the steps of her father by studying botany. It’s an unusual career for a woman of the 1800’s, but few questioned her passions because everyone knew she had the mind for it. She wasn’t lovable in the romantic way so no one expected her to take a husband and bear litters of children.
So she devotes her entire life to botany, specifically the study of mosses.
Let me stop here and say that SOAT is not as dull as it sounds. Plants? Moss? An entire life devoted to plants and moss? In the 1800s?
Yeah, so it’s not the most thrilling topic, BUT! It isn’t without event and emotion. We follow Alma throughout every messy stage of her life and awkwardness abounds in nearly every situation – mostly because Alma cannot figure out the intentions of others. Why is her adopted sister so vacant? Conversely, why is the neighbor girl so blissfully boisterous at every turn? Does her father actually love her, and better still, does her mother? Why is the Dutch nursemaid so harsh? And painfully, will she ever, EVER know the touch of a man?
She is so plant-oriented that it isn’t until the fourth quarter of her life that she sees people for the rich role they played in her story. Additionally, it isn’t until the fourth quarter that all thing converge – the Earth, the past and present, humanity, and struggle, and her place in all of it. Furthermore, where is God?
I’m not trying to be vague, but I feel that if I get too descriptive I won’t be able to stop. The narrative is absolutely beautiful. Beauty-full. I mean, GOOD GRACIOUS she is such a good writer! I’m not even envious because Liz Gilbert and I are different planes and creative jealousy is unbecoming anyway. Her level of research must have been exhaustive because historical events and the timing of discovery merge seamlessly. I fully believe that Alma Whitaker existed. It would break my heart to learn she didn’t.
Not everyone has loved this book and for understandable reasons. For all the lovely words and beautiful places Gilbert takes us to, we are talking moss, aren’t we? There’s a lot of physical descriptions to muddle through, and though some bits were more lengthy than others (I’m talking about you, Tahiti), it didn’t feel overly tedious. One could say there were slow parts, but the only section that felt like it could be trimmed was Alma’s prolonged year in Tahiti, and even then, I wasn’t bothered entirely by it. I knew we were nearing the end of the story and things would wrap up soon.
In short, I loved the story. I love its depiction of a nineteenth century female scientist who did not settle but instead immersed herself in the passion that grabbed her. I loved her excursions and her hypotheses and how she never fully gave up on herself. Alma shows us that even into the last stage of life, we still have potential. We still have something to give and we definitely still have something to learn.
To be reminded of those things, it was worth the long journey.