THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
Kirkus Star

THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS

KIRKUS REVIEW

Gilbert’s sweeping saga of Henry Whittaker and his daughter Alma offers an allegory for the great, rampant heart of the 19th century.

All guile, audacity and intelligence, Whittaker, born in a dirt-floored hovel to a Kew Garden arborist, comes under the tutelage of the celebrated Sir Joseph Banks. Banks employs Whittaker to gather botany samples from exotic climes. Even after discovering chinchona—quinine’s source—in Peru, Henry’s snubbed for nomination to the Royal Society of Fellows by Banks. Instead, Henry trades cultivation secrets to the Dutch and earns riches in Java growing chinchona. Henry marries Beatrix van Devender, daughter of Holland’s renowned Hortus Botanicus’ curator. They move to Philadelphia, build an estate and birth Alma in 1800. Gilbert’s descriptions of Henry’s childhood, expeditions and life at the luxurious White Acre estate are superb. The dense, descriptive writing seems lifted from pages written two centuries past, yet it’s laced with spare ironical touches and elegant phrasing—a hummingbird, "a jeweled missile, it seemed, fired from a tiny cannon." Characters leap into life, visible and vibrant: Henry—"unrivaled arborist, a ruthless merchant, and a brilliant innovator"—a metaphor for the Industrial Revolution. Raised with Dutch discipline and immersed in intellectual salons, Alma—botany explorations paralleling 19th-century natural philosophers becoming true scientists—develops a "Theory of Competitive Alteration" in near concurrence with Darwin and Wallace. There’s stoic Beatrix, wife and mother; saintly Prudence, Alma’s adopted sister; devoted Hanneke de Groot, housekeeper and confidante; silent, forbidding Dick Yancey, Henry’s ruthless factotum; and Ambrose Pike, mystical, half-crazed artist. Alma, tall, ungainly, "ginger of hair, florid of skin, small of mouth, wide of brow, abundant of nose," and yet thoroughly sensual, marries Ambrose, learning too late he intends marriage blanc, an unconsummated union. Multiple narrative threads weave seamlessly into a saga reminiscent of T. C. Boyle’s Water Music, with Alma following Ambrose to Tahiti and then returning alone to prosper at Hortus Botanicus, thinking herself "the most fortunate woman who ever lived."

A brilliant exercise of intellect and imagination.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2013
ISBN: 978-0-670-02485-8
Page count: 512pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2013




BOOKS TO GENUINELY INSPIRE YOUR NEW YEAR:

FictionTHE YELLOW EYES OF CROCODILES by Katherine Pancol
by Katherine Pancol
FictionSOMEONE ELSE'S LOVE STORY by Joshilyn Jackson
by Joshilyn Jackson
FictionTHE LAST LETTER FROM YOUR LOVER by Jojo Moyes
by Jojo Moyes
FictionTHE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert
by Elizabeth Gilbert

OUR CRITICS' TAKES ON MORE BESTSELLERS

See full list >
Cover art for ONE MAN AGAINST THE WORLD
VERDICT:
BUY IT
Cover art for PIRATE HUNTERS
VERDICT:
BORROW IT
Cover art for THE MELODY LINGERS ON
VERDICT:
SKIP IT
Cover art for MODERN ROMANCE
VERDICT:
BUY IT

MORE BY ELIZABETH GILBERT

NonfictionBIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert
by Elizabeth Gilbert
NonfictionCOMMITTED by Elizabeth Gilbert
by Elizabeth Gilbert
NonfictionEAT, PRAY, LOVE by Elizabeth Gilbert
by Elizabeth Gilbert

SIMILAR BOOKS SUGGESTED BY OUR CRITICS:

FictionLOSS OF INNOCENCE by Richard North Patterson
by Richard North Patterson