This was a simply astounding book. Beautifully written, featuring a heroine, Alma Whittaker, whom you grow to love and admire as she matures into a capable, resourceful and kind woman across two tumultuous centuries, The Signature of All Things manages to be both intensely personal and soul-searching as well as broad and even sweeping in scope.
Commencing in England during the eighteenth century with the tale of Alma’s father, Henry’s, humble beginnings and rise to power, wealth and status, it shifts to the early days of Philadelphia, USA, where Henry establishes his family/dynasty and wields his not inconsiderable influence in society, and manages to increase his already formidable fortune. Whether it’s because of his class background, Henry is not tied by the usual social structures that dictate what a female can and cannot do. Having found himself a clever and capable wife, he is determined his daughter should have everything his money can buy – including an eclectic education, one that constantly stimulates her questioning nature and challenges her searing intellect.
Plain, exceptionally tall and with a masculine build, and with a mind that knows no bounds, Alma becomes a gifted botanist, driven by her need to discover, to know and understand how the world around her and evolution works. When other people come into her life that don’t share her view of the world, Alma sees them as another challenge to be studied rather than overcome and so her life is broadened in numerous ways.
Without spoiling the wonderful plot, the reader follows the decades of Alma’s life – from the US to exploring the globe and the people she encounters and how this changes and confronts her. Old ways of viewing the world no longer stand and Alma is at the vanguard of new methodologies and praxis, her sex being both a blessing and a curse when it comes to insights and taken seriously within a male-dominated profession.
After reading and disliking Eat, Pray Love (I know, I know – I wrote a column about it in 2010 – you can read it here if you like, but I found the white, whiny and privileged position hard to stomach) I never thought I would read another Gilbert book. My dear friend and fellow book lover, Kerry, advised me too and I am grateful she did. The prose is sumptuous, the telling spell-binding. I didn’t want this adventure to end and I found that even now, weeks later, Alma resides in both my head and heart.
A magical tale about science, family, love, discovery, philosophy, science and ways of being in the world and with each other. Cannot recommend highly enough. I also read it’s been commissioned as a mini-series by the same people who produced Downtown Abbey. Cannot wait.