Some of my favorite books in recent years have come to me through the recommendations of my mother. Beautiful Ruins, The Shadow of the Wind, and The Boys in the Boat have permanently migrated from her West Coast bookshelves to their new home in my Brooklyn apartment. But when she pressed Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things into my hands, I was quite unprepared for the intensity with which I fell under the spell of this bewitching, intoxicating novel.
At first glance, The Signature of All Things seems like a baffling novel from Ms. Gilbert, whose earlier book, the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, was a cultural phenomenon unto itself. This is the story of the brilliant Alma Whittaker, a woman born at the dawn of the nineteenth century whose passionate dedication to botany propels her to the forefront of this male-dominated field at a time when women were expected to remain in the home. Botany takes Alma on a journey around the world; botany is the driving force in her life. But do not be fooled into believing that science makes for uncompelling fiction, for these pages are as precious a discovery as a rare and endangered songbird.
The Signature of All Things is a novel that revels in the beauty of the natural world and the mystical space where science and magic intersect. This absorbing story possesses the ambitious sweep befitting a novel that spans the length of the nineteenth century: a period when the realms of science and technology experienced great leaps forward, a period when the institutions of imperialism and slavery came under attack, a period when men and women fought to make the political and intellectual ideals of the Enlightenment a reality.
Gilbert conjures scenery as diverse as intellectual Philadelphia, lush and tropical Tahiti, the bustling commerce of Amsterdam—with the electric pulse of scientific discovery forming a common thread, uniting and illuminating them. All are rendered thrillingly alive, detailed and tactile. Despite the epic scale and detailed scientific asides, her prose is intimate and joyous. A party scene during Alma’s childhood illustrates this beautifully. When the adult guests re-create the solar system, with beloved Alma’s father befittingly ensconced as the sun, Alma takes on the role of a comet. As she “propels herself into the midst of the planets, ducking and swiveling through everyone’s orbits” with a “sputtering torch” in hand, her delight reaches levels of rhapsody.
I didn’t want The Signature of All Things to end. I wanted to linger in its pages, to breathe the earthy scents of the mosses that Alma dedicated her life to studying, be enveloped by the beauty of its language. It is a novel that can so barely contain the joy in its heart, and is so bursting with wonder, that shimmering vestiges of its light remain with the reader long after the last page is turned.
Caitlin Kleinschmidt is an Associate Marketing Manager at Viking and Riverhead.