I was not really eager to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir Eat, Pray, Love a few years ago for my book club, especially the pray part. But I discovered writing that was comic and intelligent and a story that was much more interesting than I expected.
In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert turns to fiction to tell the story of the life of a remarkable woman. Alma Whittaker is the daughter of a man born in poverty, the son of a frutier for Kew Gardens. Determined to become a wealthy gentleman, Henry Whittaker as a boy steals cuttings from the gardens to sell, and after he is caught, is dispatched by Sir Joseph Banks to gather plants on several voyages of discovery, including Captain Cook’s last.
Eventually, Henry breaks from Banks to start a pharmaceutical industry in Philadelphia. He marries a Dutch wife from a family of botanists and builds a series of greenhouses filled with plants from around the world.
Alma spends her childhood roaming the woods around her house and becomes a brilliant botanist but an unattractive girl and woman, tall and ungainly. She is much better with plants than with people, and when her mother Beatrix decides to adopt the beautiful orphaned daughter of a local prostitute, Alma is never able to develop a sisterly feeling for Prudence.
Although Alma spends much of her life there on her father’s estate, it is nonetheless an exceptional one, as she develops her own professional reputation, and eventually she ends up traveling farther than she ever expected she might. Gilbert takes time with her—time to develop her into a complex personality.
The course of her life takes a fateful turn when she encounters Ambrose Pike, an artist who has been living in South America and has painted the most beautiful pictures of orchids she has ever seen. Ambrose is of a spiritual turn of mind. He believes in the “signature of all things,” an old idea that god has left his imprint on everything on earth so that man will know its use. Although Alma, as a scientist, understands the fallacies in this notion, she finds she loves the man. But he has ideas about the pursuit of human perfection that she doesn’t comprehend.
This novel is beautifully written, completely different from Gilbert’s first book except for being a voyage through a human heart. I became fully engaged with Alma’s story. I grieved with her over her romantic disappointments and was impressed by how she snapped herself back into a productive life. This novel is an enthralling and satisfying story of an early woman scientist, about how a lonely but determined woman makes her own place in the world. Although Alma is not really a lovable person, Gilbert is able to make readers understand and care about her.