The Signature of All Things is Elizabeth Gilbert’s first work of fiction in 13 years. Set in the 18th and 19th centuries, this abundantly detailed historical narrative tells the story of the Whittaker family of Philadelphia. Patriarch Henry Whittaker amassed vast wealth in the quinine business in South Africa.

He passes on his fortune and his brilliant intellect to his daughter, Alma, whose interest in botany leads her into the study of evolution. Alma isn’t a beauty, and her bookish pursuits take precedence over romance. When she does fall in love, it’s with an artist named Ambrose Pike, whose reverence for the mystical is at odds with her own rational nature. Passages both literal and figurative ensue for Alma, as she sets out on a journey with stops in Tahiti and Holland to explore the natural world and her own inner terrain. Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) has written a fascinating, deeply authentic story of one woman’s quest to find herself, a book that demonstrates her remarkable range as an author.

A smart, spellbinding mystery, Marisha Pessl’s Night Film is a worthy follow-up to the author’s acclaimed debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics. Filmmaker Stanislas Cordova has an underground following—his dark, disturbing movies have been banned from theaters and become bona fide cult classics. Stanislas’ daughter, Ash ley, a piano prodigy, is featured in his final film. Gorgeous and gifted, Ashley plays Carnegie Hall as a preteen and is dead by the age of 24, when, to all appearances, she commits suicide. Journalist Scott McGrath, an expert on Stanislas and his work, believes there’s more to Ashley’s demise than meets the eye. Along with two friends, Scott begins an investigation into the father-daughter bond and the circumstances surrounding Ashley’s death. Pessl bolsters the story with fictionalized documentary materials—transcripts, articles, screenshots—creating a sense of authenticity that adds to the novel’s appeal. This hypnotic, cleverly crafted thriller provides further proof that Pessl is a writer to be reckoned with.

Amy Tan’s The Valley of Amazement is a wide-ranging multigenerational saga that opens in 1914 Shanghai. Violet, the book’s primary narrator, lives with her American mother, Lucia, who’s the mistress of a popular courtesan establishment. When her mother inexplicably departs for San Francisco, Violet finds herself alone in Shanghai. An exotic beauty, Violet becomes a courtesan herself and has a daughter of her own. The novel flashes back to 1800s San Francisco to tell the story of Lucia, a woman very different from the one Violet grew up with. Tan’s rich descriptions of China in the early 1900s and her command of history make this a mesmerizing family epic. Her fans will savor this novel, which finds Tan at the top of her game 25 years after the publication of her luminous debut, The Joy Luck Club.


This article was originally published in the July 2014 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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