The Signature of All Things

Carol Luers EymanI don’t  go for spiritual self-help memoirs, so I ignored the hype a few years back and never read Elizabeth Gilbert’s hugely popular Eat, Pray, Love.

But I heard an equal amount of hype last year about her newest novel, The Signature of All Things, from reviewers whose opinions usually mesh with mine. So I gave it a try.

The Signature of All Things

“The Signature of All Things” by Elizabeth Gilbert is available from the library in hardcover, e-book, downloadable audiobook, and audiobook on CD.

The first part of the novel is the story of Henry Whittaker, born to poverty in the 1700s, then sent off to sea with Captain Cook on his way to making a fortune in botanical pharmaceuticals.

You need to know Henry’s story to appreciate the more-absorbing tale of the book, which is the life of his daughter Alma, an accomplished botanist who specializes in mosses and gets far less recognition in her field than she deserves. So I ask you to persevere through Henry’s first 50 pages, because after that you’ll be hooked.

Alma is educated in the sciences by her father, who invites her from a very young age to share the dinner table at his Philadelphia estate with intellectuals from all over.

Alma is educated in the ways of the flesh by books of erotica she happens upon in one of many private libraries acquired by her father from financially ruined acquaintances.

Tahitian travels
But Alma is not lucky in love, and although she is married briefly late in life, it doesn’t turn out well. She sends her husband to Tahiti, ostensibly to manage her father’s vanilla plantation, but actually as a way out of the marriage.

Later she travels to Tahiti herself, enduring brutal conditions at sea, in an effort to better understand her husband’s most-unusual beliefs. While there, she continues her botanical investigations and eventually develops her own theory of evolution, although Darwin beats her to publication (a reminder here: this is fiction).

Although I’m no botanist or historian of science, the book seemed to me very well-researched. Not only does reading it give you get a feel for the daily work of a botanist, you also get the opportunity to learn some archaic dirty words and a few tidbits about the history of science. (Did you know that it wasn’t until the 1800s that the term “scientist” came in to use? Before that, it was thought too similar in sound to “atheist” and the preferred title was “natural philosopher.”)

Gilbert’s prose is engrossing and exceptionally readable, even with its occasionally unfamiliar 19th-century vocabulary (the contents of a “valise” play a major role in the plot, as does the act of “coupling”). After spending a week with writing this masterful, I just might pick up Eat, Pray, Love.

About Carol Luers Eyman

Carol Luers Eyman is the outreach and community services coordinator at the Nashua Public Library. After graduating from Kirkland College, she earned a master’s of education and a certificate in technical communication from the University of Massachusetts.

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