The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert
Updated: Feb 14
Summary: Alma Whittaker is an extraordinary taxonomist and bryologist, but when she meets a man who believes he can see angels, her life takes an unexpected turn. At the age of 50, Alma finds herself rethinking her life and embarking on a new adventure.
Review: I was lent this book with a "you have to read this" emphasis, and, while I didn't find it life-changing, it was definitely a very good book.
I have not read Eat, Pray, Love yet (it is currently awaiting discovery on my To Be Read shelf), but Gilbert's style in The Signature of All Things is reminiscent of Jane Austen. The prose is beautiful and flowery, much like the botanical specimens in the book. The scenes and characters that unfolded were picturesque.
My only struggle was that it took so long to get to the main event. While the ride there was charming and pleasant, I kept wondering when she was going to fall for, or even meet, the "man who draws her in the opposite direction," according to the synopsis on the back. Perhaps it was my fault for reading the back cover and setting expectations instead of just sitting back and enjoying the ride.
The rest was positive as, for the first time ever, I was fascinated by the idea of moss and the natural world. Botany seems such a simple concept until you look at it through the eyes of a Whittaker. I also enjoyed the connection with abolition and Darwin's On the Origin of Species. It gave a great sense of the time period in which Alma was living. It also displayed the remarkable fortitude of women of the nineteenth century.
There were a few moments of concern when Alma discovered some books that were basically nineteenth-century pornography and started to grapple with her own sexuality. Normally, the descriptors used for sexuality in these types of books make me shudder and eye-roll (for example, "throbbing member" or "frothy loins"...they sound like a person in a group with a serious medical condition and a piece of pork that has gone bad), however, Gilbert did a good job with keeping to the style writing, making it relevant to the story, and avoiding the awful usages of romance novels.
Overall, the life of Alma Whittaker is a marvelous story of brilliance, bravery, and stoicism.