Elizabeth Gilbert is a talented author: she wrote a book with an extremely unclear plot, but one which I was compelled to finish to the 523rd page. The Signature of All Things is largely the life-long story of Alma Whittaker, the fictitious daughter of a fictitious upstart businessman who made his somewhat unscrupulous fortune through botany. The story spans topics ranging from the Golden Age of Holland and the tulip trade to abolitionists in Philadelphia and botanical illustration.
By the middle of the story, I was perplexed. It was as if I were with Alma Whittaker every day of her life from birth to death, in real time. There was no one problem that needed resolving, nor one striking event to create intrigue. It is the peculiar story of one woman’s Dutch, British, American family throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, with a big dose of moss. Yet, I kept reading.
One of the major themes throughout Alma Whittaker’s long life is her unrequited, somewhat undiscovered, sexual desire. Maybe a parallel for us all in our lives as we try to find fulfillment, maybe a way for Gilbert to keep her readers intrigued, the frequent descriptions of masturbation seemed almost incongruent with the tone of the novel.
I recommend The Signature of All Things if you have plenty of time to devote to a novel and enjoy incredibly thorough and moderately paced historical fiction.