Before Eat, Pray, Love was an international sensation and a Julia Roberts flick; before Committed was a number-one bestseller; before she was a household name (at least in the literary world), Elizabeth Gilbert was a respected novelist and journalist. Now, it’s next to impossible to discuss her work without mentioning the acclaim that has followed.
But with The Signature of All Things, it’s easy to forget the persona behind the work and focus on a compelling story, impeccably told—which is just what Gilbert has written all along. Curiosity and name recognition may lead many to pick up this novel, but it’s Gilbert’s engaging, thoroughly researched prose that will carry readers through the 500-plus pages of this sprawling story, which covers a century and much of the globe, including Amsterdam, London, Tahiti and Peru.
Henry Whittaker isn’t born with much, save for wits. But the wily botanist applies those smarts to develop a business and relationships that make him one of the wealthiest men in his adopted home of Philadelphia. So when his daughter Alma comes along in 1800, she inherits her parents’ brains, her father’s love for botany and all the advantages he never knew.
The family wealth allows Alma the freedom to indulge her curiosity about the natural world without worrying about translating that interest to profit—or about settling into marriage. Alma becomes enthralled by botany—in particular bryology, the study of moss.
“Mosses hold their beauty in elegant reserve. By comparison to mosses, everything else in the botanical world can seem so blunt and obvious,” Alma says by way of explaining her fascination. Those words could just as easily be used to describe Gilbert’s unconventional heroine; Alma is so cerebral that her gifts are rarely apparent to the untrained eye, and she struggles to connect with anyone besides her parents.
In The Signature of All Things, Gilbert turns her finely trained storytelling skills toward the whole of Alma’s life, examining the history, quirks and quiet moments that make up a person’s being, even as she traces the trajectory of a century and examines larger themes, like faith vs. science. The attention to detail and imagination Gilbert exhibits in this old-fashioned epic prove that her acclaim is truly deserved.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read a Q&A with Elizabeth Gilbert for The Signature of All Things.